As the saying goes, Ashley wanted to be the “bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” She just had to be the center of attention. When she was placed in a discussion group, she dominated the discussion. She could change any subject into something about herself. Obviously, she was a problem for her classmates, but they didn’t know what to do to change the situation. They didn’t want to upset Ashley because they genuinely liked her.
Sensing that the group didn’t know how to handle the situation, the instructor sent an email to the entire class. “From this point on, I would like each group to follow this rule in your discussion: When a classmate makes a comment, follow up the comment by asking your classmate 5 questions about the comment. Listen to the answers. That way you can truly understand and appreciate the comment.”
Ashley wanted a good grade in the class, so she followed the guidance. What she found out was that she loved asking questions. Her questions were often the ones that generated the most insight into how others were thinking. The focus of the group shifted off of Ashley’s comments and toward understanding each other through questioning.
Two years after the class, her professor received the following email from Ashley.
I want to thank you for insisting that we ask follow-up questions. I decided to pursue a technical sales career. I was just named the outstanding young sales person in my company. I really believe that my success is due to the questions I ask of the clients I visit. These questions really help me understand their thinking and their needs. Thank you so much for changing how I interact with others.
Asking questions as a follow-up to a comment is a simple but under-used communication practice. When you ask follow-up questions you get a real sense of the thinking behind the comment. They make you focus on listening to what others have to say.
A good first follow-up question can be as simple as: “Can you tell me more?” Then subsequent questions will follow naturally.
Follow-up questions can also give others a sense that you are really interested in what they have to say. They feel they are being heard. In order to ask meaningful follow-up questions, you also need to listen carefully to what others are saying.
Think about recent conversations you might have had. Was there a real sense that those in the conversation were trying to understand each other? Or was the conversation just a series of one-off statements with limited insight into each other’s ideas? Have our conversations become more competitive than exploratory? Why might that be? How might the process of asking follow-up questions make us more effective in in our personal lives and in our work? How could we use questions to fill our conversations with true sharing of what others are really thinking?
You’ll find some guidance for developing exploratory and supplemental questions in the Interactivity Foundation’s Facilitation Workbook: Student Edition.
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“Mastering the art of asking questions is essential to creativity and innovation. A More Beautiful Question should be standard reading for all design thinkers as well as an inspiration to those searching for a life of curiosity and meaning” – Tim Brown, author of Change by Design
This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons.