Reality Check: The Art of Asking Questions

When someone asks you a question, it’s a great feeling to be able to answer with confidence and competence. The ability to answer questions is a useful skill.
Another skill that’s just as valuable is the ability to ask questions. Asking the right question, at the right time, of the right person is something of an art!
We can learn so much through our questions, especially when we listen carefully to the answers. But figuring out what questions we can ask that will reveal helpful answers takes skill.
In an earlier column, I had mentioned that I’d found the book, “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande helpful in describing what it means to feel at home. Gawande discusses issues around disease, age, medical interventions and the end of life.
He also suggests four vital questions to help one determine how to proceed when, for example, end-of-life decisions are being considered. The four questions are:
1. What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
2. What are your fears and what are your hopes?
3. What are the tradeoffs you are willing to make and not willing to make?
4. What is the course of action that best serves this understanding?
Although those questions are intended for very difficult decision points in our lives, I think they are also helpful for other decisions.
For example, Hayden has been presented with a work opportunity that involves moving to a different city. She’s unsure what to do. Let’s run through the questions from her perspective.
1. Hayden’s understanding of the situation is that the move is not mandatory. She has a choice. The potential outcome if she takes the move is that she’ll learn new skills which could set her up for a more authoritative position in the future. She’s been told that if she doesn’t take the move, she’ll continue on in her position as it now is.
2. Her fear is that if she declines the move, she will be flagged as a person who can’t be relied on to take a risk or to take on more responsibility. The opportunity might never be offered again. If she takes the move, however, she fears uprooting her family and spending much less time with them.
Her hope is that the move would make a positive career difference in the long run. She’ll gain respect from her peers and her family; her children will see her in a new light. All of those hopes and fears are valid and she can’t predict exactly what will happen.
3. Tradeoffs are always interesting. Hayden concluded that she is willing to make the tradeoff of being away from her family for some days each week but not for the whole week.
She is not prepared to move her children in the middle of their school year, but she is willing to spend more money on transportation and child care. She is also prepared to move the family after the school year, providing the position works out well.
4. One course of action could be to negotiate an offer where she could work 3 long days in the city, perhaps telecommute one day, and therefore have longer weekends with her family.
Hayden’s proposed course of action is not a perfect solution. Even if it were, the company may not respond to it positively. However, looking at the situation from the perspective of these four questions helped Hayden come up with a creative solution that at least offers the possibility of meeting her most important needs.
Tradeoffs and negotiations can be difficult. It’s so hard to get everything that you want, isn’t it?
Can you think of situations where the four questions might be useful for you?

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