The Art Of The Question And How To Get People To Play Nice

Are you a parent, a project manager or any person that needs to get groups of people together and working towards your objectives.

Then welcome to the 21st century invention: The Meeting.

I am a project manager and spend increasing amounts of my day in meetings.

I read a book that is really useful for people like me and so wanted to share a few insights from the book with you.

It is a fascinating book written by Michael Wilkinson called ‘The Secrets of Faciliation’.

And the insights I want to share with you are around the art of question.

One secret from this book: to get buy in from people don’t tell but ask.

And therein comes the art of the question.

But first a story about Albert Einstein. It was said of him that he liked to be surrounded by kids because kids had a natural tendency to ask questions.

Such was the importance that Albert Einstein gave to questions.

One secret from the book is the starting question. This applies to most kinds of meetings. This question if asked correctly gets the thinking juices flowing. If asked incorrectly silences the group.

The secret: ask a question that brings vivid images of the desired answers.

Example of an incorrect starting question: “what are the problems with the current hiring process?”.

This is the kind of the question that comes out when you ask without any thinking.

Example of a good starting question: “Imagine that one of your employees just walked into your office handed in his resignation and said he would stick around for 30 days to give you time to get a replacement and get that person trained. You start the hiring process right away knowing that it is quite involved. List the problems with the current hiring process?”.

Don’t you instinctively find the difference between the two kinds of questions?

The author suggests that we start the question with one of the following keywords: “Imagine”, “if …, “consider” and ‘think about”.

These keywords immediately put the listener in an imaginative mode.

Next the author writes about reacting questions.

These are questions that the facilitator asks during themeeting to keep the momentum going and the group appropriately focussed.

The author lists more than half a dozen of these. But below are my favorite ones:

The Playback question: You believe that you are the only one that understands what someone is saying and are tempted to translate this to others. You might probably start off like “Let me explain what he is really saying…”. Wrong. A better format “If I understand you correctly what you are saying is …. Am I right?

The Leading Question: The group has stalled but you know that there is more that can be discussed. So you could phrase the leading question as “Have we considered …”

The Indirect Probe: You feel that what someone has said is incorrect. But rather than say just that you could phrase it as “And it is important because…” This gives the other person an opportunity to explain.

A very important insight is that when there is a disagreement in the group it most often happens because we have not drilled down to the source of the disagreement.

He gives an example of a disagreement between a newcomer to a company proposing an idea only to have it shot down by a grizzled veteran who says it will not work here.

The argument goes nowhere until the facilitator asks the veteran why it would not work. It is then we discover that a similar exercise was conducted in the past and management simply ignored the recommendations.

Knowing the root cause of the disagreement will now help us resolve it. We could say for example that we will seek management commitment for implementation if it agrees that our proposal has some benefits.

This book underscores the need for great questions.

In fact I still remember something that I read many many years ago: Ask great questions to get great answers.

Think about it.

What are your favorite questions?


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