Are Your Questions Killing Engagement?

Asking questions from your own point of view is risky.

Marilee Adams, founder of the Inquiry Institute, reminds us that the quality of our answers depends on the quality of our questions. She’s right, but often we ask questions from the wrong perspective.

If you hear yourself asking these five questions, you’re on the road to producing answers that miss the mark for your audience. You’re trying to solve your problem, but you’re not employing the principle of reciprocation, which states you must first benefit someone else.

The 5 Dangerous Questions

1. “How can I make [audience] do [something you want]?” Would youlike to find out that someone is trying to “make” you do something for their benefit? Of course not. We resist coercion, and “making” someone do something is coercive.

John F. Kennedy said in his inauguration address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Substitute “customers,” “employees,” or “distributors” for “country,” and you have the right formula.

2. “How can I [increase] my [internal metric]?” In most cases, the short answer is “you can’t.” Someone else can: employees, customers, the IRS.

Instead, figure out who that someone else is , and apply the Kennedy formula. Be as specific as possible when identifying the audience. Use a real person’s name and picture if you can.

3. “Why don’t they do [something you want the audience to do]?” Do you think great comedians ask themselves “Why don’t these people laugh harder?” No. The bad comedians ask that. The good ones look at everyday things from a perspective their audience never expected.

Turn the question around. Ask “What do they want that I know how (or can learn how) to do?” It’s a subtle shift, but it makes big difference in the answers your mind offers up.

4. “How do I cut through the clutter?” One man’s clutter is another woman’s daily inspiration. She doesn’t want you cutting through it; she wants you to give her an even greater inspiration.

Try asking “what could make her day better.” Better yet, ask, “what information could help her without increasing her workload?”

5. “How should I position [product or program]?” Maybe you’ve learned that positioning is important, but the way most people go about positioning is backwards. Most people focus on the product or program, not on the people. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he began reviewing all of the products in development—over 100. After hearing the “positioning” for dozens of computers, a perplexed Jobs asked, “which ones do I tell my friends to buy?” The product managers had no idea, because they’d never thought of Steve’s friends, only about how to “position” their many, many products.

If you ask questions that real people ask, positioning becomes obvious. The iMac was designed for people like Steve’s dad. That’s all the positioning it would ever need.

Putting This to Work

The next time you’re trying to solve a problem with your team, do this:

1. Write down the audience you need to inspire.
2. Write a brief bio of one member of that audience, and find a picture of her if you can.
3. Set a timer for 3 minutes.
4. Shout out “How can I” questions about the problem until the timer rings.
5. Reset the timer to 3 minutes.
6. From the perspective of the audience member you’ve targeted, ask “How can I” questions until the timer rings.
7. Map the questions asked from your perspective to the questions from your audience’s perspective.

This exercise, repeated over and over, will eventually become a habit. You’ll be thinking like a designer, solving other people’s problems in the context of your business.

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