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End The Fear! Six Steps To Asking Smart Questions


The world’s longest scream by an individual is 56 seconds. Either he stepped on a Lego in the dark or had to ask someone a question. Even though there seems to be an epidemic of Questiophobia you can overcome it. You can become the master of the smart question.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

When we were children, we learned about the world, our parents, life – everything – by constantly asking “Why” “How?” We were fearless in wanting to know! Every answer only made us eager to ask more.

Then that rabid curiosity seemed to die and we became uncomfortable with asking questions and, worse, afraid of them. That fear is a huge problem in the workplace. So, how do you avoid the fear of looking and feeling stupid in front of your colleagues and clients?

How Do Clients And Executives Want To Be Asked Questions?

Not long ago I contacted a group of top business executives and they kindly helped me explore the importance of asking smart questions. I shared some of their insight in an earlier article. One thing was very clear. We are, in fact, judged by the kind and quality of the questions we ask.

What advice would you give someone who needs to ask questions about a project, program or business issue?

Jan Koors, director – Global Events at NCR Corporation suggest a simple approach, Prepare, have a plan, ask questions to gain information and perspective. Be time sensitive.”

Chris Johnston, senior vice president, Critical Facilities, and chief engineer at Syska Hennessy Group explained, Don’t be shy. You cannot do a good job until we communicate. The best way to ask me questions is to tell me beforehand what you want to know.”

Ken Bott is a customer engagement marketing executive. He had a different perspective on the types of questions to ask. Find out what the ‘tension’ is that is being experienced by that person/project/business issue. That will provide you a starting point for all other questions to ladder up.”

Several executives felt that questions helped them see things in a different way. Jonathan Arm, M.D., translational medicine expert put it this way. “Even the most basic questions that appear to have obvious answers can be valuable in making us reconsider our basic assumptions. We always value the view of the outsider.”

Mark Jackson, vice president Immediate Consumption and Field Execution at Dr Pepper Snapple Group seemed to sum things up pretty well. There are no stupid questions, only people who make bad decisions by not asking. I’m there to answer questions. You have my attention so ask me what you have to know to deliver what I need.”

Alicia Thompson, vice president, Communications & Public Relations, at Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen had a three-word solution to handling a fear of asking questions. Just do it!”

Smart Questions Build Value

Smart questions are as much about building value as they are about gaining information. You have to be able to ask questions that demonstrate that you know what is really important, the challenges, or opportunities and establish that she/he can have confidence in you. You don’t have the answers – but know how to find them.

Six Steps To Asking Smart Questions

#1 – Decide what you need to know. Remember who, what, when and where are just the facts of logistics and execution. What you need to know is “Why and how?” Do some homework and make a list of what you need to know to accomplish the client’s objectives.

#2 – Focus on results. Don’t waste their time and your opportunity with off-topic details. Put the emphasis on the results the person wants to achieve from the event, content, marketing or communications. Ask about the exact things you need to know to make it possible. It’s about insight, and not execution.

#3 – After you ask, pay attention. Listen and make sure he or she answers your question. If you don’t get what you need, then follow up in a different way. Don’t walk away from an important question and just hope to figure it out on your own later.

#4 – Let the answer lead you to your next question.  Your goal is to gain understanding and not check off your list of prepared questions. Let the answers suggest new follow-up questions. Usually, the follow-up questions are where you can dig deeper and really learn.

#5 – It doesn’t matter what you know, so don’t pretend to be smart. You’ll build a stronger relationship if you don’t act like you know everything.  People want to be questioned and valued for their knowledge and experience. So ask for background, what terms mean, their personal opinions about why the content is important, and what the key people need to understand to do what the client wants them to do.

#6 – Ask if there is a question you should have asked. Executives and decision-makers constantly wonder why they aren’t asked what they feel are the important questions. Let them tell you. Ask the questions no one else is willing to ask. Decision-makers are waiting for someone to have the intelligence or the courage to do it.

Recovering From A Stupid Question

Okay, it happens – to everyone. In the vast majority of cases, you will not be punished, drawn-and-quartered, flogged or held up to public ridicule and humiliation because you asked a bad question. Just be positive, re-direct your next question and move on. It will soon be yesterday’s news. Remember, there is far more damage from not asking and ending up not knowing.

The Ultimate Answer To Asking Questions

Asking good questions is absolutely critical in developing content, marketing or in a competitive situation.  First of all, if so many people are afraid of asking questions, then you will stand out by asking the good ones.

Even more important, counting on your own psychic abilities to know what clients want, or running on the same old assumptions from last time, can lead to off-target execution and lost business.

Your clients will respect you more for caring enough to ask. So think about what information you will need to deliver the results the client needs. Ask intelligent, thoughtful questions, listen to learn, and respond succinctly and honestly. Then you can kick back, relax and scream for joy!

Special Guest Illustrator

We are fortunate to feature the work of a talented illustrator to help catch your attention.  Sherri Wolfgang an extremely versatile artist and illustrator. She is the founder of The Dynamic Duo Studio in New York City and you can see more of her work at

If you want to know more about how to use smart questions to create powerful content just click on CONTACT US and get in touch.

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1- The “W” is Silent – Why No One Asks, “Why?”

2- The Heartbreak of Questiophobia! Are You Afraid of Asking Questions?

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About the Author
Andy Johnston is a multi-faceted communication professional who has a comfortable way of working with people. Andy is an Emmy Award winning communicator known for his energy, humor, creativity and his unique ability to discover the key results that must be generated – and then to develop ingenious ways to engage and motivate audiences. He has broad experience in strategic planning, messaging, creative direction, marketing, and events. One of the things Andy says often is, “How can we make it better?”
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