Asking the right questions

A monk was strolling through the garden at a Zen monastery, listening to music. He stopped near another monk, who motioned for him to remove his earbuds.

“What are you doing?” the second monk said.

“I’m listening to music and meditating,” answered the first.

“Do you have permission from the master to do this?” the second monk asked.

“But of course,” replied the first monk.

“I find it hard to believe the master would allow you to do such a thing,” the second monk said. “I was denied this very privilege just yesterday.”

“How did you raise the question with the master?” the first monk asked.

“I approached him and asked, ‘When I am meditating on my walks through the garden, is it OK to listen to music?’ The Zen master told me, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

“That’s odd,” the first monk replied. “I approached the master and said, ‘I’m listening to music while I’m walking in the garden. Is it OK for me to meditate?’ He replied, ‘Certainly.’ ”

Sometimes the answers you receive are determined by the questions you ask.

Scientists and detectives know how to ask questions that produce results. They also know that sometimes the answers they get lead to additional questions. It’s the only way to discern the answers that they need, not just the answers they expected to find.

Managers can learn a lot about asking the right kinds of questions to reach a solid conclusion. The subtle difference here is that the questions need to be framed so that they don’t come across as threatening or demeaning.

Employees also need to have the freedom to ask questions of their managers that clarify the purpose of a project or establish the best way to proceed.

Honest communication is the first step in asking and answering questions. There are three types of questions that will facilitate clear and open lines of communication.

Repetitive questions — sometimes you have to keep asking the same question to find the answer you need. Here’s an example:

“When can I expect your report/response?”

“Next week.”

“When next week?”

“Probably Thursday.”

Each question will get you closer to a definite answer.

“What else?” questions elicit additional information by exploring surrounding issues and specific concerns. “What conclusions does your report reach? What else did you find out? What else concerned you? What more could we do to handle that problem?” Asking “Why?” forces you and the other person to look at the underlying issues. “What caused the report to be late? Why couldn’t you get the information you needed? Why did you have trouble confirming your conclusions? What could we have done to help you?”

On the flip side, learning how to answer questions completes the circle.

Give every inquiry your best reply once you are sure you understand the question. Again, clear communication is critical. Make sure you understand precisely what you are being asked so that you can best answer the question. Don’t be intimidated when a higher-up who has less knowledge of the topic at hand asks you to explain further. Take it as a compliment and share what you know. Answer succinctly and provide relevant information.

Leave out details that do not relate to the question at hand, unless you are asked for additional thoughts. Be careful not to be arrogant. Complicated language and technical terms are fine if your audience understands them. Before you get too fancy, consider how your answer will help the questioner.

Finally, don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer. But offer to do further research to find the information requested.

A manager overheard a salesperson tell a customer, “Gee, we haven’t had any for a long time. I don’t think we’re supposed to get any more until the end of the month.” The customer said thanks and headed toward the door.

The manager was horrified and caught up with the customer, telling him, “Come back next week. If we don’t have it by then we can make a special order for you.” The customer looked puzzled and walked out the door. The salesperson was embarrassed.

The manager railed at the salesperson, “How many times have I told you not to let a customer go without an invitation to come back? Now, what exactly was he asking about?”

“Rain,” the salesperson replied.

Mackay’s Moral: Be careful what you ask for — if you want the right answer.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail