Five techniques to ask better questions

Feb 23, 2017 · Life

To me it feels like everyone is talking about questions today. However, I haven’t found a good toolkit to change the way I think and act through questions. Sometimes I think “What is the next step?”, “How can I do that faster?” or “What the hell?” Pretty average questions I would say. So, how can we ask more effective questions?

In the last couple of days I’ve read the book Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelly, who both work at IDEO. The book empowers people to be more creative, which according to them lies in all of us and sometimes just needs a little nudge in the right direction. In the book, there is a chapter called Spark – from blank page to insight. It provides several concepts to cultivate a creative spark. So, let’s change the way we ask questions.

How to ask better questions

“The first step towards a great answer is to reframe the question.”Tom & David Kelly

There are five ways to change the way you ask questions. It’s all about reframing.

You don’t say? You mean I need to ask a different question in order to get a different answer? Genius. Thank you, Sir!

Well, yes, but sometimes it seems hard to reframe the question. A toolkit to do exactly that would be helpful. And this is where the book comes into play.

1. Step back from the obvious solutions

The first technique makes one thing clear: even for the most successful design companies in the world, the first question they ask might not be the best. They put their pants on the same way we all do. Going for quantity first when asking questions is the way to go. Finding the right question needs time and effort, even if all we see is just the result in the end. Perseverance in crafting the right question is the basis for finding a good question.

2. Alter your focus or point of view

Most often, getting trapped in your own world is not the best perspective to ask questions. Empathy plays a crucial role here. This has a lot to do with being able to simply observe people, actively listen and see things through the eyes of others. Often times the best ideas come, when we don’t ask the question from our perspective, but think about what questions other people would ask instead. And don’t directly focus on a solution, but rather make sense of what the person sees, feels, hears and thinks. Doing so will lead you to different questions and ope new opportunities to handle problems.

3. Uncover the real issue

This technique is very useful when you’re feeling stuck. After working on a project for a while, it’s important to reassess if you’re working on the real issue or if you’re heading in the wrong direction. If people need a tiny hole in a wall, they do not want a tiny drill but a hole in the wall. If people want to get from A to B faster, they might not need faster cars, planes or any other usual vehicles. If people want to be happier, they might not need more entertainment. This technique is all about escaping the standard solutions and focusing on the real issue. This might open up a lot of other ideas or solutions.

4. Look for ways to bypass the resistance or mental blocks

This one is pretty close to the first and forth technique. It’s about questioning your own beliefs and mental models. When searching for the right questions, try to set yourself free from what you already know. It all pretty much depends on context. Don’t believe stuff because people say so and rethink the problem by yourself. Break mental blocks and give yourself a chance to get new creative sparks. Maybe the question you ask is even better than the one all other people are trying to find a solution for.

5. Think about the opposite

I really like this technique because it’s so easy to use and still can be very helpful. Due to our habits, we tend to ask the same questions in the same way over and over again. Same questions, same answers. The next time you ask a question, just flip the question on it’s head. Instead of asking “How can I succeed at XYZ?” you could ask “How can I completely screw this up?”. Or “What do I have to do to run a marathon in three months from now?” becomes “What do I need to avoid in order to be able to run a marathon in three months from now?”. Simple trick, big difference. In this example, the second question gives you things you need to avoid and from there a new set of questions might emerge.

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We question things and make tens of thousands of tiny or big decisions each day, and many of them are based on the questions we ask ourselves. If there is one technique, that I will take into my daily toolkit, it’s “Think about the opposite”. Maybe you also found a handy tool and hopefully it will help you find new solutions to old problems.