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Faculty Insights

There Are Such Things as Bad Questions

By Charles West

March 19, 2015

Teachers are fond of saying, “There is no such thing as a bad question.” Sadly, they’re wrong. Teachers, in fact, often provide the class with an excellent example of a bad question. At the end of a long lecture as the bell rings they ask, “Any questions?” On a good day no one responds. On a bad day, someone braves a question only to get a collective moan from colleagues eager to leave. But that is the lighter side of the problem.

Chuck West
Chuck West, Program Director of Sales, Sales Management, and Advanced Management programs for the Center for Professional and Executive Development at the UW-Madison Wisconsin School of Business.

In business settings, such as a sales call, poor questioning doesn’t help you qualify the customer, better understand their needs, or add value to their decision making process. So let’s focus on the positive side of the issue.
Characteristics of great questions
Interesting: Thought provoking, engaging, generate curiosity, generate energy, and lead to a great discussion.
Creative: Get mental juices flowing, make people think in new ways.
Objective: Without bias or manipulation, not “leading the witness,” not self-serving, and not “entrapment.”
Focused on people: Their business, job, challenges, needs, and goals–not focused on you.
Able to answer: Within the respondent’s ability, authority, and willingness to answer.
Depth: Gets at important issues, aimed at core values, and identifies the real cause and underlying assumptions.
Clarity: Easy to understand.
Disruptive: Makes people stop and mentally shift gears, not expected, a question that “stays with you all day.”
Focuses on the future: Their desires, dreams, and future possibilities, not restricted to today’s problems and short term solutions.
Clarifies priorities: Helps identify and resolve conflicting priorities.
Insightful: Both parties learn from each other, and about each other and themselves.
Appreciative inquiry: Phrasing a neutral question in a positive way, encouraging the respondent to look at the positive side of an issue.
Here’s an example of appreciative inquiry and the power of good questions. I was in the habit of asking my son, how was school today? Which always gets and deserves the same answer, “Long and boring.” One day I broke the mold and asked him, “What was the best thing that happened in school today?”  He paused and said, “Remember that calc test I said I bombed? I got it back today and got an A.” Then he went on and on about the test and his day and I relearned an old lesson, the quality of our questions will determine the quality of our conversations and, ultimately, the quality of our relationships.
“Questions are the ‘breadth of life’ for a conversation.”  James Nathan Miller