Questions are so powerful for learning and communication. We all know that already.
But a great post by Shane Snow illustrates how important it is to use the right kinds of questions. He points out that an interviewer who asks open-ended questions and then gets out of the way will produce a much more interesting interview than one who “administers a multiple choice exam.” You know what I’m talking about. You want to know something about someone, and instead of asking, “What made you decide to do that?” you ask, “What made you decide to do that? Was it market driven, or was it because you really thought it was the right direction to go?” The second question, the “multiple choice” version, narrows the possibilities for response and limits what we might learn from the conversation.
Snow says we do this because we’re uncomfortable with silence, so we keep rambling on rather than ending the sentence. I agree that this is often the reason, but I think there’s another reason too. It’s because we think it makes us look smarter. We’re asking the question but really, we already know the answer, or at least some of the possible answers. We want to make sure we look like we understand the context in which the question operates. But by doing so we actually choose that context, and thus demand an answer that is within our current frame of reference. And that’s too bad, because we would learn more if we let people take us out of our own frame of reference and into theirs.
Being truly good at asking questions means being willing to look ignorant, and deal with the discomfort that comes with that. Try it, and see how much more you learn.