Good Questions

Last week at Consultants' Camp, several friends reminded me that I have a reputation for asking good questions. One of my friends, James Bach, asked me, "How do you do that? How do you decide what questions to ask?"

Good question!

I didn't know how to answer James's question. I'm still thinking about it. And as I think about it, I'm starting to answer a related question: What makes a good question good? Here are some of my thoughts.

I don't immediately know how to answer the question. When James asked how I decide what questions to ask, my first thought was, "Huh. How do I decide what questions to ask?" I have a hunch that I had a blank look on my face (one of the telltale signs of a good question).

The question asks me to think about things I haven't thought about before. Though lots of people have told me that I ask good questions, I've never explored what makes a good question good. The moment James asked his question, it seemed like such an obviously good idea. How is it that I've never thought about that?

It's okay that I don't know how to answer the question. It's easy ask embarrassing questions that point out people's ignorance. I didn't feel threatened or embarrassed by James's question. Why not? Maybe I simply wasn't embarrassed by my "ignorance" about how I ask my questions. Or maybe there was something about the way James phrased the question that made it non-threatening. Or maybe I've learned, in my long friendship with James, that he cares about me. Maybe all of those things. I'm often able to ask very challenging questions in a way that leaves people feeling safe. I'm not sure how I do that, but I think it's important. I'll want to explore that further.

I want to answer the question. If I knew what makes my questions so good, I might be able to ask even better ones, or to ask good questions more often. Or maybe I could learn additional ways to get the same good results that I now get only through questions.

The question gives hope. Though I didn't know how to answer James's question, I knew immediately that if I think about it, I'll learn some very useful stuff. The question gave me hope that I didn't know I needed.

The question shows compassion and respect. James asked his question because he wanted to learn how to do something that I do well. I suspect that every good question shows compassion and respect.

I still don't know how I decide to ask the good questions I ask, but I'll bet it starts with me feeling compassion and respect, and wanting to offer hope.

Experiment: For the next week, notice questions that you and others ask. Which questions did you think of as good questions? As great questions? Which questions seemed less than good? What is it about the great questions that makes them great? What makes a poor question poor?

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