Effective Questioning: Answering the Unasked

Communication is a challenge at all ages.  As babies, we learn to read the body language and listen to the tone of voice.  As kids, we respond to how peers act and must judge between right and wrong.  As working adults, the challenge is perhaps greatest; the interpretation of what another person is saying or asking of us.

In service of the same outcome, two people may communicate the same inherent need in very different ways.  For many of us, it’s the classic tree swing reference.  Someone asks for a tree swing, but is it a tire swing or bench swing?  Is it built for one or two?  Wood or plastic?  The list of questions to define something as innocuous as a tree swing is longer than one might imagine.

What I like to know, and challenge you to consider, is whether the person is asking for a tree swing or something else.  Many times, the answer is simple, and after aligning on what tree swing is needed, that is what I deliver.  But what if the person is really looking for an activity for a kid who doesn’t like big playgrounds and a swing isn’t the best alternative?  Or if the is swing meant to be a decorative piece in the front yard symbolic of a simpler time?  In either case, my job is to determine if a tree swing is really the best way to meet the underlying need.

A View From the Outside

As a consultant, a frequent challenge is gaining an understanding of the inner workings of a client’s business.  The culture.  The history.  The unavoidable politics that influence companies big and small.  One solution is seeking input from an extended set of stakeholders as the first step of any project.  Your relationship may only be with Marketing, but make sure they introduce you to Finance and Sales and Legal before you design a solution.  This will often reveal requirements that need to be considered and spur ideas that meet the original objective in ways that make more people happy.  In other words, build a more durable swing now and avoid having to pay to fix it for many years.

The Smartest Kid on the Block

Just as when we were kids, we look to those who can help make us successful.  We want the fastest kid on our team; the smartest one in our group.  The same holds true in the workplace.  Sometimes the best way to be effective is recognizing you need help.  Ask others in your company and network if they have recommendations on how to address a problem.  You may find newer technology or updated regulations influence your approach and initiates an innovative solution that far exceeds expectations.

Don’t Overreach

Perhaps the tree swing you are asked to build is just needed for one day.  If so, using steel instead of plastic is probably not the right call.  Before heading in a direction that may not be well-received, or within budget, check in to discuss your ideas.  You may find your audience very receptive to your suggestions, but in the end, maybe they just need a swing.

To discuss tree swings or to learn more about asking effective questions, please contact Zach Pastko at [email protected].

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