We have all encountered locked doors in our lives. Most of them are literal slabs of wood or metal, keeping us from moving to someplace we want to go. And to get through doors, keys are required.
The keys I am sharing with you today however, unlock more than a literal door. They are key ways to ask better questions – and these keys unlock more than a room, they unlock engagement, conversation, understanding, trust, problem solving and more.
These are doors worth opening.
And here are the keys.
Ask, Don’t Fish
Too often people ask a question like they fish. They put the hook out there expecting a specific result. What do I mean? Instead of asking a leading, assumptive question like “What do you think about that terrible new software feature?; ask “What do you think about the new software feature”, or “How do you see that new software feature impacting us?”
The second two questions open the door for conversation and understanding. The first question adds very little value and may not open the door to conversation or understanding at all.
Be Ready to Ask Again
Sometimes you get an answer that doesn’t really answer your question. You’ve seen politicians give their canned responses and you’ve seen people hide behind corporate-ese (whether intentionally or not). Both are cases of not really getting an answer to your question. If you want to unlock the door, be willing to reframe the question later. Clarify, ask a more direct version, or simply ask for a bit more detail. If your intention is to understand, you will likely get more information without the other person’s perception of you.
Clarify By Using Their Answers
You have asked a question and gotten a response. But you want a bit more. Use their answer as the start, and frame for a follow-up question. This is especially helpful if the first answer you received was vague or overly complicated. Consider something like: “So, this software will integrate the two other tools together and save us a bunch of re-work?”
Redirect with Questions
We are taught not to interrupt others from the time we are little, to any lesson on listening skills we learned as a professional. While that advice is generally correct, there are times when an interjection can be helpful to the flow of the conversation. Rather than nodding and being quiet, there are times when you can gently and tactfully interrupt with a question.
This redirect can manage a rambling person, clarify a point, and in the end, most mature people won’t really see it as an interruption, because the question actually allows them to continue to talk.
Remember the Five W’s (and the H)
Questions that start with who, what, where, when, why and how are great ways to unlock conversation. These powerful starters create open-ended questions and help us avoid things like “Would you do this?” – Much better to ask, “What would you do?” “How would you do it?”
Beware the Naked Why
The “why” question is a very powerful way to drill down for better understanding or get to the root cause of a problem. But, when used alone, it often puts people on the defense. We all were asked a lot of “Why” questions when we were kids – and it was in an accusatory, rather than exploratory way. We carry that forward with us. For this reason it is usually best to start with other questions and lead towards a why – your intent to explore and understand will be clearer then. And when you do get to why questions, ask them in context of what has already been discussed.
You’ll get more complete answers, and you will build rather than potentially harm the relationship at the same time.
Ask, Then Shut Up
Whatever question you ask, you are asking to unlock engagement, relationship and conversation, so you must ask expecting that people will have an answer. Ask, pause, and wait. If no answer comes, rephrase or ask the question again. When you ask and talk to quickly to fill in the silence, you are teaching people that they don’t have to respond, because you don’t really want their answer anyway.
These keys really will help you unlock a variety of valuable things with other people. Use them in meetings, as a leader, as a coach, and in all parts of your life. The doors – in terms of results, relationships and knowledge – that you open will make a difference for you and others.

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