What Was the Question?

Questions are at the heart of what drives people to learn. But in utilizing questions as part of any team-oriented dialogue, learning and development professionals should take care to make sure the right type of questions — open-ended versus closed-ended — are being used.

To understand the difference between the results achieved by asking open-ended questions versus closed-ended ones, consider this example. When someone visiting an unfamiliar place asks a friend, “Can you tell me what I should see while I’m in your city?” the answer is most often a place or a monument of some sort. But that does not actually answer the original question. If the city native has an idea of what the person should see, the correct answer would simply be yes.

In listening carefully to conversations, it becomes clear that very rarely do people pose open- ended questions. Yet, almost always, the answer is given as if an open-ended question was asked. Additionally, the person answering tends to add many unrelated, additional comments.

Meanwhile, when someone asks a closed-ended question, he or she may actually want an open-ended answer. When someone asks, “Can you tell me what I should see while I’m in your city?” the person answering understands that the person inquiring wants to see something while he or she is there, or the question wouldn’t be asked. So the questioned person bypasses the actual question and jumps right to the assumed intent of the question. Not only that, but he or she tops it off with some other useful facts about the city.

If the person inquiring really wants to know what to see in the city, why didn’t he or she just ask that? Perhaps it’s because before the person questioning can ask what to see, he or she must first find out whether the questioned person has the information. Yet, if the person inquiring were to ask, “What should I see?” the questioned might answer with “I don’t know” if he or she didn’t have any suggestions.

This is not to say that open-ended questions are inherently better. Open-ended questions have a function, as do closed-ended questions. Open-ended questions are useful when learners are exploring and gathering additional information. Closed-ended questions are great when learners are trying to narrow down the focus.

Questions and Action Learning
Action learning only has two ground rules, both based around questions:

1. One can only make a statement in response to a question.
2. The action learning coach has the authority to intervene whenever there is the opportunity for learning. In explaining the first ground rule, the coach asks the participants to work hard at only answering the question they are asked. Generally, within the first couple minutes of an action learning session, someone will ask a closed-ended question and receive a verbose response. Consider the following example:

Sam: Are 10 people involved in this project?
Chris: There’s the project manager, the program director, the … .
Action learning coach: Chris, what question are you answering?
Chris: The one Sam asked.
ALC: Which was?
Chris: Who is on the project?
ALC: Sam, what was your question?
Sam: Are there 10 people on the project?
ALC: Chris, why didn’t you answer that question?
Chris: I thought the other information would be useful.
ALC: If Sam wants additional information, what will Sam do?
Chris: Sam will ask for it. But Sam may not know this is important.
ALC: How can you find out if it’s important to Sam?
Chris: Ask.

Answering the Question
Many people display the tendency that Chris showed in the example above: Chris decided what would be useful to Sam, which is normal. When something is important to someone, he or she becomes intent on sharing it. The danger there is that the person will stop listening to the others in the group and start focusing on his or her own need, focusing on what he or she believes is best for the team. This lack of listening means the person doesn’t really care about the input from the other team members — he or she cares more about showing off how much he or she knows about the situation. It also indicates that the person doesn’t trust that the other team members are smart enough to ask the right questions. When he or she gets out of his or her own head and really listens, amazing things happen.

The first phase of any action learning session focuses on clarifying the problem at hand. The tendency of most folks is to jump to a conclusion about the problem even before the problem is fully explained. They tend to have a sense that they have to be doing something to be productive at work, and taking time to understand the problem slows them down entirely too much.

People should take the time to listen to how they phrase questions. They should ask themselves, “Am I asking for the information I am seeking or using closed-ended questions?” Next, they should listen to how they answer questions and ask themselves, “Am I answering the question I was asked or expounding on it? In conversations, am I really listening to the other person or am I thinking about the brilliant tidbits I can use to show off how smart I am? Am I in my own head during conversations, or am I truly part of the conversation? What is it that makes me part of the conversation? What helps me get out of my own head so I can be an inquisitive participant in the conversation?” Such self-analysis ensures a team is having a productive dialogue.

Bea Carson is an action learning coach and organizational development expert. She can be reached at editor@clomedia.com.

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