Friday 19 August 2011

I wonder what?

Why do we not all realise that questions are probably the most important tools in the communications toolbox? They can be catalysts for highly productive change, they open doors, they make people think harder and better, they set the direction of travel, they engage others and enable contribution, they spark creativity and propel reform, they can impress, they achieve clarity and understanding, they help us marshal our thoughts and make plans, they…

Actually, I must go further than this. Questions are life-changing. If we don’t ask questions about what we are doing, how we are feeling, why we are feeling this and what the hell’s going on our there, we are likely to remain with the foot soldiers and never put our heads above the parapet, or never even consider that there are other ways out of this beleaguered place. In fact, without questions people may not even realise when they are in a beleaguered place – that there is better, there is more, that they have talent, that they do play a part, that they are special too.

Questions are the fundamental motors behind major scientific, technical and political change. “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask, for once I know the proper questions I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” What would we do without the Internet? If we bother to look we can trust Albert Einstein to come up with a thigh-slapping quote.

Thank you Albert, that’ll do for life-saving science but what about politics? Surely, the first Arab Spring question for a great many people in Tunisia and Egypt was “Why are we all putting up with this tyranny?” Then others must have asked themselves “if they can do it why can’t we?” And look what happened in the space of a few weeks. Alongside those questions sprung others such as “is freedom worth dying for?” and “shall I take part?” These are profound, activating and empowering questions that have moved nations and continue right now to do so – questions that spike the adrenalin and make our hearts beat.

My job as a communicator, trying to help businesses sort out the things they want to say to their various audiences, involves a lot of questions. They start with ‘why’ questions and they move on to a few ‘who’ questions and they do some pretty hard fact-finding – seeking out the detail, background, agenda, nuances – with a nice helping of ‘what’ questions. Notice that these are all ‘open questions’, the ones that start with interrogatives – why, what, who, how, where, which, when. They are the best questions generally because they promote fuller and more thoughtful answers. Closed questions, which mostly start with a verb – do, is, are, will, may, can, does and so on – tend to be used to extract specific information. “Do you like red cars?” Or they bring a negotiation or meeting nicely to a close, “Do we all agree?”

What I didn’t realise until quite recently is that we can, and almost certainly should, learn how to use questions better, that we should try to ask more questions, that there are lots of different types of question that if properly understood will strengthen our armoury in debate, discussion, general communication and just about every aspect of business activity. Added to this, there are good ways and bad ways of asking questions and we fall prey to the bad ways time and time again. But if we raise our knowledge and awareness levels a little we can transform the effect that we have individually by practising the better use of questions. This will help us to contribute more to the achievement of business targets and visions – and assist our personal relationships too. And it’s all right in front of us, if only we knew.

My enthusiasm for this subject has been sparked by a client of mine coming to me to ask if I would ghost-write a book for him. What about? I asked. About the power and importance of questions, he replied. Hmmmm, I considered. Tell me more…and he did.

My client is a business consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience. He is invited by businesses to help in a great many consulting roles. He and his company assist with difficult negotiations, train people in this skill and also in customer service, leadership, selling techniques and much besides. Over the years he has observed and learned a lot about questions and clever questioning techniques. As he realised the power and the variety of questions, he started to examine and isolate the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of questions themselves. When and why to use them to achieve greatest effect? Who will benefit from what kind of question and how? He became fascinated. Models on good questioning technique form an important part of his company’s training courses.

So my client thought a book on the subject was well overdue and 40,000 words later I cannot help but agree. There is a lot to say about questions, and much to learn.

As I write this I am taking a temporary break from editing the near-final draft of this book (so I’d be a bit previous to say to any reader that you can buy this book here or there; in a few weeks, I may give details but I am obliged to be tactful until my client and the publisher wish to get promoting). But even as I was editing, just earlier, I realised that editing – something I’ve been doing for years – is a constant process of asking important questions about structure, intonation, rhythm, tenses, voice and so on. I wanted to share my sense of wonder at this simple revelation. It was a bit like noticing a door for the first time in a place that I visited frequently and wondering what lay behind.

What do you think lies behind the door?