Being able to ask the right question at the right time can not only lead to learning something important to you, it actually show that you are an expert.
I have always excelled at what I have done. It is not because I am some sort of super genius, or a super learner. I excel because I ask questions. And not just ordinary questions. I seek out the leaders in my field, my boss if I am in a job, or someone who I feel could help me as a mentor.
There are three types of questions that I ask them. I ask them very specific questions on high level problems. I ask them questions that I already know the answer too. I ask them questions about things that I think they may not have the answer to.
It is very deliberate and planned out. I ask these questions because I know it will illicit a response. I also make sure I do not ask a question that can be answered with a dismissive yes or no. I make sure my questions are open ended and thought provoking.
Here is what I do for each type of question.
High Level Problems
First thing I do is pay attention to the current situation. As a teacher I made sure I was up to date on the newest and latest techniques, styles, and strategies. I would then listen to the teachers who were trying to implement some of these and find what problems they were facing. I call this the information gathering time.
Once I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on the problem I would then seek out a principle or someone who I thought would be important for me to know.
The process was simple. I would start a conversation with them. I would give them a compliment. Then I would ask them the question I came up with.
An example might be “I have been trying to figure out a good way to group high performing students with low performing students so that the high performing student doesn’t do all the work. Do you have any thoughts or a resource that might be helpful?”
Yes it sounds a bit formal. And yes I would use that exact language.
If it is a person who you feel is a mentor or someone of influence, and they are the type of person who wants to help then they will give you a good answer. Then shut up and listen.
Also this shows that person that you are really thinking deeply about the topic and trying to make yourself better.
Asking a Question When I Already Know the Answer
This technique really helped me move up the ranks as a football official quickly. With this technique I would think of something that I have recently experienced as an official. A strange play, or a close play, or an important call on an important play.
What I would do is go to my referee then next time I saw him, or a supervisor if they saw what happened. It is important not to ask them right away, or in this case at the end of the game. A few days should have passed.
The reason why there should be a “cooling off period” is to show that you have been analyzing your performance, or reflecting on what has happened in the past.
The system for asking the question is quite similar. I would approach them, thank them for a great game, or give them some other complement and then ask my question.
It would sound something like this:
“Hey … Great game last week. I have a question. Remember late in the 3rd quarter I had a Holding Penalty on the defense. They held the receiver at the line. The quarterback had no where to throw the ball and ended up taking a sack. If he would have tried to throw the ball away would that have changed to a pass interference since the defenders clearly were not letting the receiver release?”
That would usually turn into a discussion about rules, proper application and enforcement, and the intent of the rule. It would also clearly show that my head was in the game, I was paying attention to all aspects, not just my area, and I was thinking ahead to what might have happened.
I also know, because people have told me, that it clearly sent a message that I had a great rules understanding and I was interested in moving up the ranks. It also showed I was coachable. So the next time they had a game I would be requested. Then before, during, and after the game the referee felt comfortable giving me feedback. We all learned through the experience and I went from Junior Pro (Pop Warner) football to Collegiate Football in less than 5 years.
Asking Questions that I Don’t Think they Have an Answer To
The last and most difficult type of question I use is asking my mentors or supervisors a question that I don’t think they have an answer to.
I have used this most as a coach. I am seen as a person of authority, or at least an expert, and I certainly am not. I am just a guy who knows a little bit about something and am able to get people around me to reach thier peak performance.
This questioning technique takes a lot of listening. Usually I have a lot of discussion leading up to this question and learn what my mentor or supervisor is struggling with. Once I have an idea of something they are questioning or struggling with I store it in my brain for future use.
Usually the next day, or next time I see them I ask them the question that I know they have been struggling with.
The technique is very similar. Give them a complement, start a conversation, then ask them the question.
It goes something like this:
“I was thinking back to our last conversation. What do you think the best way to deliver information so that people feel like they are discovering it for themselves? I ask this because clearly the best way to retain information is to have the feeling that we have discovered it. Research shows that discovery learning has a far better retainment than simply writing something down.”
I know they have been struggling with this same question. It shows that I am interested in the topic. It shows that our last conversation has sparked interest in me. It also shows that I have gone back and done a little research on the problem that we were last talking about.
Bonus points. Have a solution, or at least a resource to give them. If you can do that then it really shows you care. They will also be far more likely to offer more advice to you, and give you more opportunities to grow and become more involved.
If you notice all the questioning techniques require three things to be successful.
First we must listen. Listening is not just being silent while the other person is talking. You must be fully present in the conversation, which does take practice. Your mind cannot be wondering or you cannot be thinking of what you are going to say next. It is that space in between the beginning and the end of their statement where the high level and good questions come from.
Always start off with a complement. Complements are great icebreakers. But don’t use something like “you look good today” that is very inauthentic. Complement them on a great meeting and then tell them why it was. Tell them you really liked how they handled a very specific situation. Be very specific and genuine. We can always find something they have done well and everyone likes to hear about something they have done well.
Have a good idea of what the answer might be. A good supervisor/coach/mentor will turn the question around on you. If you have no answer or no thought on an answer it shows that you are unprepared. Instead have something to offer. It can be good to start with something like “Well right now if that were to happen I might do X…but I am not so sure that is the best answer (or way to handle the situation).”
Listen, ask good questions, and finally implement their advice. This will show that you care about your craft and are willing to make the changes to become a better person. You life will change when you get good at this.