I remember a cartoon strip about a little child struggling with her homework. Finally, she gives up and goes to her father. "Dad, usually my teacher gives me questions for homework that I have to answer," she says. "But today she asked me to make up my own questions. I don't even know where to begin!" It is now the father's turn to feel perplexed.
The simple truth is that it is more difficult to ask than to answer. In business, reviews are very important. If done well, they bring a sense of discipline and movement. But if done casually or badly, they can defeat the very purpose for which they are carried out. To ask or not to ask is not the question, but how to ask and how not to ask, especially in different cultures, is a very important part of business etiquette.
Are you asking me or telling me? Many people make statements which are disguised as questions. It often happens at job interviews as well where the interviewer speaks more than the candidate. A smart candidate has to only nod her or his head once in a while to get through!
One must not have too many queries in a single question. There are accomplished experts who can ask four or five questions in one, sometimes making them even more complex by adding "and" and "however" to them. Most people answer only the last question. If some of the parts are not related to the other questions, the challenge to remember them is even greater. The best answer I have come across to a very complex question with many embedded questions that went on for 10 minutes was, "Could you please repeat your question?"
Always begin with open questions that cannot be answered by just a "yes" or a "no". Contextual questions are best asked with "Could you describe … "or "What are some of the steps followed in this process?" Once the broad questions are asked, you can ask closed questions for specific points of clarification.
Curiosity is good. But one must never forget what it did to the cat. Some people want to know all in the very first encounter. It can actually scare people away.
Avoid obvious questions. I remember a sequence in MAD magazine where a person is lying on the road, badly injured with his smashed vehicle nearby. A passerby walks up to him and asks, "Did you meet with an accident?" The injured person says, "No, I just like spilling my guts all over the road."
When you ask a question, wait for an answer. You must be able to withstand the deafening sound of silence in between the question and the answer. Sometimes, people take time to think about what they want to say. It is important not to distract the person during that period.
The people who are best at asking are those who make it more like a conversation than a questioning session. Like great actors, who never appear to be acting, people who ask questions well do not seem to be questioning. It is more like a conversation in which they appear to be the listeners. And like someone said, "I just had a nice conversation. I spoke all the time and he listened." The bonus of excellent askers thus is that the other person actually looks forward to the questions!
Ranjan Acharya is Senior Vice President – Corporate Human Resources Development at Wipro Corporation