What’s behind your question?

Want to get better at asking questions?

Don’t start with the words. Start with what you hope to achieve by asking the question.

Start with your intention.

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Half the time people ask questions, their intention is not to learn, but instead to prove a point–or something even more nefarious. For example, during a phone conversation one day, a close relative interrupted me multiple times without apology. I nearly lost it. “You continue to interrupt me,” I said, “and I’m getting frustrated. What’s it going to take for you to stop?” I didn’t care about his response and didn’t want to hear it. Instead, I wanted to drill home the depth of my anger while appearing reasonable and mature.

Your intention is the specific outcome you want from asking a question. Usually this intention is hidden in the deep corners of your subconscious. You think you’re being curious, but in reality you’re playing a different game that has its own peculiar goals and rules. I’ve played all of these games myself. Here are some other examples from my experience.

  • When I was 23 years old, I met with my boss for my first-ever performance review. After telling me how much he enjoyed my work, he asked, “So, Amiel, do you want to make a case for how much you want to be paid, or do you want me to tell you how much you will be paid?” I interpreted the question literally and made a robust case for a salary increase. My boss wasn’t pleased. An uncomfortable 40-minute argument followed. Later I realized that my boss’s intention wasn’t to hear my preference about salary, but to communicate that he had already made a decision.
  • Several years later, I had coffee with a famous leadership consultant who was a generation older than me. Going into the meeting, I told him, “I’m not looking for connections. I just want to talk with you.” During the meeting, I asked him a series of questions about his work. Although I was genuinely curious, I had an ulterior motive. I wanted him to introduce me to people he knew. He eventually figured this out and called me on it. I felt ashamed and never reached out to him again.
  • Recently, my wife went out of town for a week, and I stayed home with the kids. The night before her return, we chatted on the phone. I asked her, “How would you say this trip has been for you?” Ordinarily, that would be a nice question. However, I already knew she’d had a great time. What I secretly hoped was that she’d thank me (again!) for holding down the fort. This is exactly what she did.

In all of these examples, the person asking a question is playing a covert game. They wouldn’t admit it if asked and may not even be aware of it. But it’s right there below the surface. And the other person feels it.

Their intention is not to learn from the other person or invite an authentic response. Instead, curiosity is trumped by fear, manipulation, anger, or resentment.

I think we can do better. That’s why I created a simple scale for assessing what’s behind your questions. You can use it when preparing to ask a question or when reflecting on it afterwards. My back-of-the-envelope model is called Amiel’s Ratings of Intentions Behind Questions:

  • A: Asked with curiosity and openness to having your own assumptions overturned
  • A-: Asked with curiosity and the hope that your assumptions will be confirmed
  • B: Asked to get an objective response
  • C: Intended to gently point out defects or steer in a direction
  • D: Intended to badger, criticize or force in a particular direction
  • F: Intended to humiliate or cause other forms of damage

Go ahead and grade yourself today on the last three questions you asked. How did you do?

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2 thoughts on “What’s behind your question?

  1. Nicely written and very useful, Amiel! What makes your post(s) so refreshing is your willingness to use your own (revealing, sometimes embarrassing) experiences as examples.
    Keep up the good work.

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