LIU DAN HAS A THREE year old daughter. Today, he conceded, “She can ask questions better than me!”
Liu had just completed a practice activity, which tested his ability to ‘funnel’; a systematic approach to asking questions, that drills down to the root of the problem. But he, and the room of 30-somethings, had become stumped. Three questions into the game, they were reverting to closed-questions, that is, questions resulting in a “yes” or “no” response. Thirty-minutes later, with more than 15 questions asked, the group of trainees were far from uncovering the root cause (El Niño, if you are curious to know).
So why was it so difficult for a group of 15 to ask questions? Why were ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘which’, ‘who’, ‘why’, and ‘how’ so difficult to use?
I blame school. For 16 years, from primary school, to secondary school, and finally to tertiary school, we learn to answer questions – “What’s 5 x 6?”, “How old is the United Nations?”, and “Which enzyme is responsible for alcohol metabolism?”. But while we are constantly asked questions we aren’t encouraged to ask questions. Especially in China.
So while Liu Dan’s three year old is challenging her father with “What’s that!?”, “Where do butterflies come from?” and “Why is the sky blue?”, Liu Dan himself has lost that ability, no thanks to formal schooling. And consequently, when it comes to problem solving, uncovering a client’s needs, or simply being a better manager, Liu Dan is handicapped.
What then can Liu Dan do?
He can learn to funnel. ‘Funnelling’ involves asking ‘open, non-leading questions’, then a ton of ‘open, leading questions’ and then finishing with one or two ‘closed, leading questions’. Let’s look at each in turn.
Open, Non-Leading Questions
The most open, non-leading question is simply, “How are you?”. The answer to this question could be as diverse as “GREAT! I just won the lotto” to “Terrible. My house burnt down.” With people whom you have yet to build goodwill, then the most likely response will be “Fine, thank you. And how are you?” – even if their house has burnt to the ground.
But “Fine, thank you” is unlikely to be the response from a close friend – or close client. A friend would probably use this open, non-leading question to begin elaborating on a recent sore point with their wife/husband, or be more positive, and mention that it’s one of their kids birthdays soon. Alternatively, they might highlight pressures at work, or recommend a recent movie they have seen. The depth of response is directly proportional to the level of goodwill.
A close client would probably elaborate on recent staffing issues, or highlight a new policy. If the relationship is very strong, then they might highlight a weakness with the incumbent supplier, however, this is more likely to come out in the next level of questioning.
Open, Leading Questions
Assuming that you do have goodwill, you will get a response that moves the conversation forward. A nagging wife, an upcoming birthday, work stress, or the most recent blockbuster now become the focus of the next level of questioning. Start to dig deeper, using open, but now leading questions:
“Why is she on your back?”
“How old is your son?”
“What’s your challenge at work?”
“Who did you go with to the movies with?”
A close client’s response could be met with:
“What measures are you taking to overcome these staffing issues”, or
“If you could improve your current supplier’s service, what would you do?”
The response to these questions should be met again with more open, leading questions; taking us further down the rabbit hole. Repeat this ‘open, leading’ combo four or five times.
Closed, Leading Questions
Closed questions, when used at the end of the conversation, allow for clarity, confirm assumptions, and reduce the chance for confusion.
“So you believe she’s angry because you work long hours?”
“Will you be holding a party for your son?”
“Are you likely to get a promotion from your hard work?”
“Can you think of a worse actor then Keanu Reeves!?”
For a close client, the closed questions could be:
“Would you like help developing a strategic development plan?”, or
“If I could show you how our firm can fill these gaps with your current supplier, would you be interested in using us?”
The use of closed questions does not signify the end of the conversation. It’s still possible to jump back up to another ‘open, leading question’ and continuing with the process. Chances are that there are more issues facing your friend – or client.
It’s ironic that an ‘education’ can reduce the ability to ask questions, and that a three year old feels more comfortable with the five ‘Ws’ and one ‘H’ than an adult with an MBA. And yet sadly, from Shanghai to Sydney, Beijing to Boston, the world’s schools quell our ability to question and acerbate our habit to assume. And consequently, for Liu Dan, a middle manager in one of the world’s largest investment banks, based in one of the world’s most exciting cities – Shanghai – his skills are over shadowed by those of his daughter; a three year old, with an innate passion to learn, and no fear of stupid questions.