Have you ever wondered the secrets to getting more out of meetings (and really, who hasn’t wondered)?  Yes, structured agendas matter.  And clear outcomes and actions.  But I think there’s more, something that’s a little more subtle.

Every now and then, I get to observe people having important business conversations.  For as much as we do it, I wonder sometimes how skillful we are at it (myself included).  Try this little exercise sometime today: while you’re in a meeting, simply keep track of how many questions are asked and who asks them.  What you may find is that the meeting is actually like a ping pong match with statements and points of view flying over the net.  People are focused on getting their points across more than on understanding the other parties and what they are really saying.

The end result? Usually, it’s frustration for at least one of the parties.  “I don’t think he really gets what I mean.” “There’s  no way she’s going to change her mind.” “Why should I even bother wasting my time trying to work with that person?

Perhaps we would be better served by asking more questions – catching the ping pong ball and having a good look at it before hitting it back.  Before dismissing this as a simple, mechanical fix (OK, I’ll just ask more questions!), think carefully about the sorts of questions that really create value.

Try this Holding ping pong ball instead of this Ping pong game!

Here’s a simple example.  You are coaching someone.  They tell you about a scenario or  something they are trying to implement.  There’s a pregnant pause and you realize, I’m supposed to ask a question!

Here are a range of questions people might ask:

  1. Was it successful? (A below-average question in this case because it’s closed and forces only surface-level analysis.)
  2. How did it go? (A slightly better question because it’s open – but it still doesn’t provide you with any background information nor does it encourage reflection in the other person.)
  3. What happened? What went well? When you do it over, what will you do differently?

This last question string can create a lot of value: it starts with facts (what happened) on which you can base your own judgments.  It focuses next on positive evaluation – often overlooked by “high achievers” who have been taught to think and act critically.  And last, it looks forward for things to improve.

Most importantly, better questions help others learn, convey interest in them, and – as we all know – impress others much more than our brilliant answers.  Ironically, asking a question can be more influential than making a point!