Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Art of Asking Questions

One of the core skills we worked on while during the Coro Fellowship was how to ask questions. Throughout the intense nine months, we constantly practiced how to ask questions to gather information and gain new insights. We learned how to ask questions within a group setting, since there were twelve Fellows, and how to drill down deeper by following up on someone else's question. When that process really clicked, it was amazing to experience the level of questioning that occurred and the information that was discovered.

To further practice our questioning, we would use rigid structures and guides to improve our skills. One was the four Ws and H... Who, What, When, Where, and How. "Why" was never used or allowed during our training because it sometimes can solicit an opinion which wasn't our objective. Our objective was to gather facts and facts that can provide new insights or lead to new ideas. Sometimes this rigid structure led to awkwardly spoken sentences that made us to mock this questioning method, but in the end it proved to be a great guide.

After going through the program, I became a "questioning snob." I realized how many people have poor questioning skills, even journalists. Majority of journalists I would hear on TV and on various talk shows would ask horrible or completely loaded questions. The worst was during graduate school. Various public policy or political science lectures would interest me, so I would attend to listen to all these great minds visiting our campus. The disappointing aspect of these lectures were the Q&A sessions. These lectures or seminars were mainly attended by Ph.D. students who didn't know how to ask questions in such a setting. Here you have these great scholars or practitioners in front of you, and only a handful of times were they asked serious questions. The majority of the time was to simply allow these Ph.D. students to expound on their works to try to impress the guest lecturer or to hear themselves talk.

More importantly, since the snob factor quickly faded, I realized how useful of a skill I acquired and how I needed to maintain that skill. Asking the right questions can open the doors to insights or information you never would have known were there, gaining the leverage needed in a business deal, or creating comfort in a room full of tension. Good questioning leads you beyond the things you know and things that you know you don't know, and to things that you don't know you don't know. A skill that always need sharpening and always helpful in both your professional and personal spheres of life.

During my time in St. Louis with the Coro Fellowship, I really gained respect for the public relations industry or at least some aspects of it. Before I thought it was to some degree simply writing and sending out press releases, which it practically is in Korea, but I found out that it was deeper than that. The main reason was being introduced to Alfred Fleishman's writing. Fleishman was the co-founder of Fleishman-Hillard, the second largest PR firm in the world. The firm was started in St. Louis and grew to having over 2,300 employees worldwide. Fleishman was considered one of the founding fathers of the public relations industry. He retired years before I moved to St. Louis, but he continued to write a column, "Common Sense Communications", for the St. Louis Business Journal. The column was reflective of his incredible knowledge and insight to the world of how people communicate with each other and how important it is to be effective communicators in our lives. When I read his columns, I found some overlap in his writings and our training materials and philosophy. I really thought he should have been a trainer or key advisor to the Coro Foundation.

Anyway, here's one of his columns that he wrote on questioning:

Questions Count

By Alfred Fleishman
St. Louis Business Journal
January 2-8, 1995

It may sound simple and even overused, but this column's subject, "communication," is about as important a single topic to observe.

What are we hearing? Where is it coming from? What are we listening to and believing? Who said it, and why?

It just makes sense that we be more careful about our conclusions and how we reach them. What have we understood? What is the full meaning? What questions were before we came to that conclusion?

It is interesting that, recently, a little book published about 40 years ago and reprinted a number of times since then is now back in print.

I'm referring to a book I first read many years ago, called "The Art of Asking Questions." It was important then, and in my opinion it is even more important now.

When the book was dedicated in 1951, its author Stanley L. Payne said, "To Claude Robinson... who insists that communication is our greatest problem." Boy, do I agree!

I do not know either Mr. Robinson or Stanley Payne, but I do react to that statement. The author suggests the "need for examining questions that are asked before we fully accept the conclusions we draw from the answers." It's worth thinking over.

When we ask questions that deal in "broad generalities," we are likely to get answers that are just as broad. From generalities we can draw all sorts of conclusions that may be right or wrong - be good, be inconsequential or even be hurtful.

Everyone knows that we are just about saturated with personal questionnaires and polls these days. Before voting places close or we get the official results, we get statistics that not only predict what the vote will be, but even why people voted the way they did.

When the president or any other important person makes statements or a speech, or asks questions, almost within ten minutes we are bombarded with what millions of people believe they heard or understood the speakers to say and mean.

How those conclusions are reached, of course, often depends on the questions that were asked.

What were the questions? How were they worded? How and when were they asked? These are all very important questions in themselves to consider before we jump to final conclusions, take action or even give money.

All one needs to do these days is read or hear C-Span discussions. From them we will see and hear how some reach many different conclusions about the same things or specific events.

For example, of the 37% of the citizens who voted in the last election, how and what did 52% of them tell us about the many different directions the nation is being asked to go?

What questions are asked that lead to any of the many conclusions? How are they interpreted by the many spokespersons on television, on the radio, in the media? When you figure that out, you can very easily become one of the spokespersons yourself.

In "The Art of Asking Questions," Mr. Payne warns that the words and phrases, or changes in the words and phrases, can and do make a very big difference in meaning - what we think we hear, the conclusions we draw or even the action we take.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is right in the beginning. Here we go back to the ill-fated Literary Digest days that some of us still remember. That was when the polls showed that Dewey was elected over Truman as president of the United States.

I'm not going into that particular subject any further except to discuss the questions that led to that conclusion.

Here's what a group of experts of the day determined. It's worth repeating. In my opinion, the results of those studies are just as applicable today as they were then, maybe even more so:

- Improperly worded questions 74%
- Faulty interpretations 58%
- Inadequacy of samples 52%
- Improper statistical methods 44%
- Presentation of results, without supporting data 41%

There seemed to be no question that the results reached by the overwhelming majority came about as the result of the "different ways of wording questions."

The big points here is the importance of wording. Other factors are important, but that factor leads the field.

Today, many of us receive mail questionnaires that ask all sorts of questions and seek all sorts of answers. These "factual surveys" are in need of careful wording, just as the "attitudinal or opinion surveys are... The facts that are reported in answers to questions are not always the facts that exist."

I haven't covered more than the first few pages of the book. However, I still remember the impression the rest of the book made upon me when I first read it. When I lost my first and only copy, I tried to get another one and was told that it was out of print.

Well, the book is back in print again. I believe it will make more than interesting reading to many who believe in the importance, background and accuracy of what they read, write, see and hear; what they make up their minds to do or endorse.

Especially about the difference in reaction to three little words: "might," "could" and "should." Is there a difference in how people perceive or react to each of these words?

We may find the answers in "The Art of Asking Questions," by Stanley L. Payne.

More later.

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