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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Public speaking: The art of asking

No matter if used with a group or a single person, in a professional setting or very personal: Questions are the bread-and-butter tools of people leading conversations. The art of asking is important for facilitators and managers, for coaches and counsellors. This is how I introduced the issue to my Toastmasters club:

What is more important: A good question - or the perfect answer? I believe the art of asking questions is one of the most underrated tools in human communication. Yet, it is one of the easiest and most powerful tools to take charge of your own life and to change the world around you. In the next couple of minutes, I am going to show you how you can use questions to improve your everyday communications.

What makes questions so powerful? Questions change every aspect of a conversation. They change me, as the speaker; they change you, as the respondent; and they change us and the relationship between us. How is that? Well, obviously, questions yield answers. In doing so, they give me valuable information that I didn't have before, and that help me do my work. When I ask a question, I can determine the frame of the answer. I thus take a certain level of control over the process.

But more interesting is what happens on the other side: A good question will make you think in a different way that you did before. It will make you aware of your world as you look for the information. And it might even challenge you to come up with a solution. As this solution is your idea, you will probably feel a lot more motivated to actually implement it.

This is great stuff: Questions create responsibility on both sides. The speaker takes responsibility for the process, and the respondent for the content. Asking questions is a listening skill: You need to pay attention what the other side has to say, and if you ask honest and open questions, the other person will open up and you can grow trust and a fruitful relationship.

Obviously, not all questions are good. What makes a good question? The aim of a question is either to get information or to get people to think. So, if you ask a closed question that can easily be answered with yes or no ('Did you look at the report?' - 'Sure') you don't get information and the other person doesn't need to think. Ask for data. Ask what when who where how much. ('What changes do you propose in the report?') will give you better information to work with.

Asking questions is not about you, so stay away from your opinions and judgments ('Chapter 3 is awful, isn't it?'). Another tip for this: Avoid why and how, as they can easily be misunderstood as an accusation ('Why is our logo not on the report?'). Better would be 'I would like to see the report published with our logo. What options do we have to make that happen?' So, a good question is open and posed out of real interest, and separate the problem from the person.

But what to ask about, you might wonder. How many times have you remained silent when you didn't really understand what was going on, or when you weren't entirely happy with a situation? I bet that 80% of the time you weren't the only one slightly lost. So in speaking up, you actually help the group and help the process to move forward. You've got nothing to loose if you ask a question. But there's a lot to loose if you do not ask.

So, next time you don't have the answer to a problem, just ask.
You might be amazed what happens.

Inspiration and material for this speech came from:

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