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November 3, 2022

Mission Multiplier: The Power of Questions

Jane Pfeiffer

Hello and welcome to the Mission Multiplier. I’m Jane Pfeiffer, founder and president of Fieldtrip. Today, I want to talk about questions and the importance of silence. We as humans just really struggle with the unknown. I often catch myself and others being incredibly uncomfortable in conversations when they’re silence or being uncomfortable not yet knowing what the other person is describing or the situation they’re in. Let’s take the standard meeting where you’re trying to discover what the other person is bringing to the table. And we rush to have the answer to mentally connect with something from our experiences or past and just know the answer. We rush to fill the silence with a comment, or what we think might be the answer. And yet we do so much better when we relish in that unknown and really just sit there for a minute. So questions are what we need to work on, and not questions that close the conversation but continue to lead the conversation.

Every week we meet as an agency wide team and one of us share something that they’ve learned or something inspirational. My presentation with this week, and it was about questions. We did an exercise where everybody was paired up. One person was given an unusual image and the other person for two minutes could only ask close ended questions. You know, those questions that have a yes or no answer, black and white, it’s this or that. There’s one option or a second option. And after two minutes, really, people had gotten maybe 10 to 20% in the best case scenarios, ability to describe what was the photo that was holding, you know, the other person was holding. For example, one image was an elephant, but the elephant had a duckbill, while the other person knew that it wasn’t a duck. But that’s all they knew about the photo. In the next session, we flipped places, changed images, and now I explained the different types of questions and asked people to go through the process again. But this time they weren’t allowed to use any closed ended questions. And by and large, in the same two minutes people got 70 to 80% correct of what that image was. So it was much more effective. Yet it’s just easy to jump in and and try and fill the silence or try and guess what the other person is seeing, or thinking rather than exploring and asking more questions. So samples of the questions that we used are obviously close ended questions (the least effective of all question types), open ended questions, you know, and we gave you advice. You can say, you know, what is the image that you see? But in the real world, that person holding secret or the image would not just generally open up and share everything. They might only share a little bit. And it’s our job in the real world to probe and really get a fuller picture. So, yes, you could ask that question, but I ask the team to be realistic. One of the most powerful questions, if you find yourself gravitating towards asking close ended questions is a menu question. So is it a animal, person, mineral, place, or something else? Now you’re giving the respondent a choice, but you’re also opening the door to say, if I’m not even in the right category, tell me what it is. Another question that was very powerful was a continuation. So when the answer would be, yes, it’s an animal, you could say “and” or “such as,” and just keep the person continuing in the same vein of thought without interrupting them and asking them to kind of mentally switch to answer yet another question. And then also rephrasing. So it’s not a duck, but it’s an animal. Well, I didn’t say it’s not completely a duck. You know, it’s it’s clarifying and rephrasing what you think you heard to see if you’re on the right track. And then when there’s a time that you have to ask a difficult question. I don’t think it came up in our image game, but if you’re asking someone about something deeply personal or a financial number, you know, we’re we’re often hesitant to talk about budgets and costs. You can really soften that question by saying, you know, I’m a little uncomfortable, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask what’s the budget for this? How do you really feel? What was that experience like? And give the respondent a chance to kind of prepare themselves for something that might be a little uncomfortable to share and give them time to think if they want to respond. So the power of all this is that if we’re in a situation where we really need to learn, if we’re telling and talking, we’re not listening. And if we’re not listening, we’re not uncovering the real issue or the complete story. And without that, we can’t be problem solvers. And isn’t that, at the end of the day, what we’re all trying to do is solve problems for ourselves and for other people and make the world a little better place. So that’s the topic for today. Just be comfortable in asking questions, different types of questions, and also be comfortable in sitting with silence and allowing the other person to fill us in. Thanks for watching. And for more videos, visit. Thanks for watching.