I Have A Question

Below is the audio version of this blog post:

This past summer I attended a five-day Chair Yoga course at the Kripalu Yoga Center in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. I highly recommend programs at Kripalu because they are full-on sensory experiences with world class instructors, silent breakfasts, dorm-style living, a camaraderie of spirit and a beautiful Berkshire Mountains location. The Chair Yoga course was focused on adaptive yoga and our practice was “off the mat and on the chair.”

On graduation day when we were given our certificates the teacher said something personal to every student. After Lakshmi called my name she added, “I have a question …” Everyone laughed, including me.   She handed me my certificate and said, “Your questions always made me think.”

Someone noticing I ask a lot of questions is not new. I have a long history of asking questions, sometimes with a positive social outcome like at the yoga certification course.  However until I learned to ask questions that were also useful to the others, my questions often just put people on the spot.  There is an art and science to asking questions that both satisfy your personal curiosity and are meaningful to others. This post covers understanding what makes questions engaging or off-putting in a group setting.

Your Personality Influences the Questions You Ask

The marvelous thing about a good question is that it shapes our identity as much by the asking as it does by the answering.
— David Whyte (philosopher and poet)

Our questions reflect our world view. They tell others about our biases and our blind spots. Conversely, if we learn to listen to others skillfully, questions can also reveal important data about the person asking the question.

A personality assessment tool I have used for decades to help me decode questions, my own and others, is the Birkman Method, which provides both insight and objectivity around how we see others and how others see us.  Here is a color coded list of the four dominant personality types and typical characteristics associated with the kinds of questions asked.

See if you recognize any of the following question styles as similar to your own.

  • Yellow – focused on precedent, methodology, and loyalty

Yellow asks “How” questions focused on proof. Yellow questions often include words like should/ought, honesty, trust, and facts. Questions tend to be about details: “How were resources allocated in the fourth quarter?”

  • Blue – focused on relationship, empathy, and big-picture    

Blue asks “Why and When” questions focused on ideas. Blue questions often include words like consensus, intuition, authentic, and sensitive. Questions tend to be indirect: “When this project gets rolled out, shouldn’t we be sensitive to people’s reactions?”

  • Red – focused on action, deadline, and outcome

Red asks “What” questions focused on results. Red questions often include words like logic, practical, deadline, and right now. Questions tend to be direct and about a task: “What do we do first?”

  • Green – focused on spontaneity, flexibility, and enthusiasm

Green asks “Who” questions focused on influence.  Green questions often use words like exciting, new, passion, and energy. Questions tend to be direct and about their contribution: “Who am I working with? What is my role?”

Points to Remember

While we are all a mixture of these different personality types, usually one is dominant. Knowing our own worldview can help us appreciate others’ points of view and enable us to ask and answer questions that others are also interested in knowing.

  • Characteristics of Effective Questions

Engage others’ attention with “how” and “what” questions that generate new or useful information about the task.

Create opportunities for clarification about something that may have been unclear to you and most likely others.

Stimulate new ideas and bring up something that hadn't been thought about but turns out to be a very useful piece of information.

  • There Really Are Bad Questions

Avoid leading questions. They imply a right answer and don’t demonstrate real interest or curiosity about other perspectives. Often leading questions put other people down or on the spot and defensive.

Avoid poorly thought through and constructed questions often leaving others unsure what was even asked.

Avoid redundant questions, when the person asking the question obviously wasn’t listening and asks something that has already been brought up.

Avoid questions that are idiosyncratic that are so subjective that they are only of interest to the person who asked it.

  • Does Anyone Have a Question?

Sometimes it is the speaker who asks a bad question and the biggest offender is the ubiquitous “Does anyone have a question?” While the person speaking has good intentions and wants to encourage discussion, unless adequate time is allocated, “Does anyone have a question?” often feels obligatory and rushed.  When time is budgeted for discussion, some alternative questions to consider to get the conversation flowing include “What do you want to learn more about?”; “What would you like clarification on?”; “What do you think was overemphasized or underemphasized?” or “What point resonated for you?”

Asking effective questions is an important but neglected form of public speaking. Learning to ask questions effectively is a skill that will add value to both your professional and personal life.  

What are your thoughts about this closing quote?

Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers
— Tony Robbins (motivational speaker and author)

If you have any comments or questions about this post, you can contact me via email: patwardconsulting@gmail.com or contact form to schedule a free 20 minute conversation.