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The secret to asking better questions

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Problem Solving

It’s been a travel-filled year for me, as I’ve been on the road frequently to give keynotes.

When I’m checking out of a hotel, I almost always get the same question.

How was your stay?

I smile and respond with a cursory “It was good” (even when it wasn’t) and get on with my day.

Recently, instead of picking the same question from the same script, a hotel associate asked me the following during check-out:

What could we have done to improve your stay? 

That question completely changed the dynamic. It presumed that the hotel could have done more to improve the guest experience. Instead of just going through the motions, I actually shared honest feedback.

Here’s the thing: When you change the question, you also end up changing the answer.

The answer may not give you what you want to hear. But it will give you what’s valuable for you to learn.

And that principle applies far beyond soliciting feedback from your customers.

During a quarterly review, if you ask an employee, “Are you facing any challenges?,” most will say no. They might fear that their admission will be seen as a weakness. But if you ask, “What challenges are you facing right now?,” you’re more likely to get an honest response. That question presumes that challenges are the norm, not the exception.

After you give a presentation, if you ask an audience member, “What did you think?,” most people will say “It was great!” But you’ll get more valuable feedback if you ask, “What would have made the presentation better?”

Research supports this approach. In one Wharton study (cleverly titled “There is such a thing as a stupid question”), participants were asked to play the role of a salesperson selling an iPod. They were told the iPod had crashed twice in the past, wiping out all the music stored in it. The researchers were curious what types of questions in a role-played negotiation would lead the sellers to come clean with the problem. They tried three different questions.

“What can you tell me about the iPod?” prompted only 8% of the sellers to disclose the problem.

“It doesn’t have any problems, does it?” increased the disclosure to 61%.

“What problems does it have?” led 89% of sellers to disclose the freezing issue. Unlike the others, that question presumed that there were problems with the iPod, leading the sellers to open up.

Good insights, contrary to popular wisdom, don’t come from a smart answer.

They come from a smart question.

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