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Every day you have opportunities for asking effective business questions, ranging from basic, informational queries to more abstract, opinion-oriented ones. These opportunities can lead to specific, appropriate, and information-rich answers or they can result in mountains of words and detours that take you places you never intended to go.

You may be in charge of interviewing the new sales manager applicants and you need a set of questions that not only discover the best and most compatible candidate for the job, but you also want to avoid prying too deeply into areas that aren’t relative or helpful.

Or you may have just listened to a data-intensive presentation on social media analytics and there’s so much more you want to know but you don’t want to be “that person” who bores the rest of the audience with open-ended or extraneous questions.

To get the most out of your questions and answers, consider these tips:


1. Know Your Purpose in Asking Questions

Effectiveness requires purpose, and purpose requires organization. In the sales manager interview example mentioned above, if you want to go from a broad and general to narrow and specific approach, start off with a question like, “Tell me about your last job – what you liked or disliked,” and then get more specific, “Why do you think you were so successful at selling when others couldn’t meet quota?”

On the other hand, you might decide to go from the narrow and specific to the broad and general. “How long were you at your last job?” Then move to broader question: “What are some of the difficulties you think arise in working in teams and being held accountable for results?”

Broad, general questions give both the asker and answerer latitude in where they want to go. Specific, narrow questions allow for more control but sometimes provide less information.


2. Give Your Questions Context

A manager asked his assistant how much small plastic trash cans cost. His assistant called three stores to put together a list of potential suppliers of trash containers with the available sizes and prices for volume purchases. When she reported back to her boss with her list of suppliers, he commented that they were all too expensive for the one-time use he intended.

When he fine-tuned his request, the assistant explained that her next-door neighbor ran a janitorial service. This janitorial service supplied containers for a fee far less than the cost to purchase containers. With only limited information, the assistant had done much more work than necessary.

Context makes a difference. If people know why you’re asking, they may be able to supply helpful information that you haven’t even thought to ask.


3. Don’t Use Show-Off Questions

This is where the conversation usually heads off in multiple directions, usually south. The questions sound like this: “Did I tell you about having lunch with the CEO last week at the sales meeting?” or “After reading several of the most recently published articles about buy-in techniques, I’m wondering what you think are the most useful?”

Such questions are attempts to show off the asker’s own connections or expertise – not true questions that gather input. Most people identify and resent such purposes.


4. Don’t Demand With Questions

“When are you going to call that committee chair back and tell him that you don’t have time to participate and also do your job here?” “How can you even consider taking vacation that week when we have such a short deadline?” Where can you possialby think of finding a replacement at such a late date?”

Such questions make demands rather than call for answers. Using them simply makes the other person wary of other questions on other occasions.

Asking effective business questions can be an invaluable tool for acquiring information and deepening understanding. To avoid distractions, detours, and deep ends, use these tips and be a person who is known for getting results with his queries.


“Communicate With Confidence” by Dianna Booher, pp 190-202

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