Question everything! Questions are the Swiss Army knife of communication. They can help you build trust and understanding, foster engagement, and even calm your nerves. Join me for the latest episode of the GSB’s Think Fast Talk Smart where I speak with GSB lecturer and former NPR reporter, producer, and director Debra Schifrin about how you can ask better questions.
In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturers Matt Abrahams and Debra Schifrin discuss how to craft inquiries that can lead to better communication outcomes. Questions are also instrumental in building relationships, Schifrin points out. “If you’re asking questions, you’re signaling to the other person that you value them. You’re taking time to listen to their answers.”
Matt Abrahams: What is one of the most versatile communication tools everyone should have in their toolkit?
The answer is asking questions. I think questions are the Swiss Army knife of communication. A well-timed question can accomplish myriad communication tasks from building trust and understanding, to fostering engagement and calming your nerves. Through asking good questions, you can become a more connected and authentic communicator.
My name is Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.
I am super excited to have Debra Schifrin here. Debra is a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she teaches two MBA courses. She co created Spontaneous Management and Creativity in the Business Ecosystem prior to joining Stanford. Debra spent a decade as a National Public Radio reporter, producer and director.
Matt Abrahams: Welcome, Debra. I love collaborating with you and I look forward to our chat. Let’s get started. Why questions? What do they do for us?
Debra Schifrin: There’s a range of goals and purposes we have for asking questions. Of course, the big one is getting information. Matt, what time is it?
Matt Abrahams: It’s a little bit before noon, actually.
Debra Schifrin: So that’s how that works. I needed information. I asked Matt and I got the information I needed. But the second one is building relationships. So you want to use it to build relationships. You ask people questions, you get to know about them. They get to know about you. And then there’s other goals you can use in the workplace. You can ask questions to generate ideas and foster creativity. And of course, it’s a darker goals, like interrogate or intimidate or avoid responsibility. I think I’ll take one, Matt, if it’s OK and break it down a little bit.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, absolutely. I’d love to hear more.
Debra Schifrin: So one of the big ones I mentioned was building relationships. So if you’re asking questions, you’re signaling to the other person that you value them, you’re taking time to listen to their answers. You’re telling them that their answers matter and they matter. And the other one that I think is really important is the type of question that comes with coaching or mentoring people. And a lot of people are mentors. A lot of leaders are mentors to younger people coming up in the organization. For me, I use it mostly in my coaching practice. And I’ll give you two examples, which I love:
Imagine I’m talking to someone and they are deciding whether to take a job offer. They’ll be talking and they’ll be weighing the pros and cons, right? And then I’ll stop them and I’ll say, “What do you want?” And it’s sort of a disruptive question, it breaks the back and forth between the tactical decisions and it just takes things up to another level. A second one is, say someone is telling me they’re feeling inadequate. When I hear that a couple of times, I will say, “How is feeling inadequate serving you and what is it costing you?” It really makes people stop and think about it? How is it supporting me and how is it harming me? And it makes people either take action to change it or change their mindset.
Matt Abrahams: I see, you know, a key takeaway I had from what you just said is it’s it’s not just the question you ask, but it’s the willingness to actually ask the question in the first place and then listen to the answer. That’s what can really help disrupt the conversation or show that you really are concerned with the person you want to foster that connection, is that right?
Debra Schifrin: Yes, absolutely. And you have to have some sort of trust built up. So this isn’t a question. You’re not going to meet someone for the first time, say, “Matt, what do you want?” But if you have a relationship with someone of some sort, with some trust, then you can start using those questions.
Matt Abrahams: Clearly, questions can help us achieve many ends that are positive and prosocial. But you did mention that goals were not always as friendly, such as intimidation and avoiding responsibility. Can you talk more about these?
Debra Schifrin: Yes, I can. I’ll mention interrogating. So this is another way to get information, I suppose. But you’re doing it in a very unpleasant way. You might try to trap someone into making a mistake or doing a gotcha question. So that’s not very pleasant.
People can use questions to intimidate and a lot of times that has to do with power dynamics. So they may want to use the question to increase their power dynamic or take advantage of a power dynamic that already exists. And a third one is avoiding responsibility. So this brings me back to my improv training days many years ago when I was learning, and we are told as improvisers not to ask questions on stage. And it may seem counter intuitive, but the reason is, say you and I are in a scene and we’re both creating it together. There’s no script. So we’re going back and forth and building something. And if I keep asking you questions, you have to do all the work to come up with all the ideas. You don’t want to do that. You want to share the burden. And there’s an example I think most people can relate to. So let’s say we were going to go to a movie and we were trying to figure out where to go to dinner and say there’s like five of us. And someone would say, “Hey, what do you want to go for dinner?” And then the next person will say, “I don’t know, where do you want to go for dinner?” And that could go to all five people.
Matt Abrahams: I think you’re describing my entire teenage years. I think that’s what we did every Friday and Saturday night.
Debra Schifrin: Believe me, it so happens to me now I’m in San Francisco and there’s so many options. But I think the reason that happens, well, eventually someone will step up and suggest an actual restaurant. But I think that happens because, one, people might not want to take the responsibility of choosing the restaurant. But I think also people are afraid that if they pick a restaurant and the rest of the group doesn’t end up liking the food, that they’re somehow responsible for that. So it isn’t avoiding responsibility technique.
Matt Abrahams: Talk to me a little bit about how tone plays out in question.
Debra Schifrin: Asking tone is really important. Tone can turn questions negative or positive. The same question.
Debra Schifrin: All right, Matt, let’s do a role play, OK? I’m ready. You’re ready. OK, so you’re going to be the employee and I’m going to be the manager. See how I did that? All right. So, Matt, this is your line. And I will respond two ways. You’ll say the line. I’ll respond. You’ll say the line. I’ll respond to that. Your line is “I have a plan to automate customer service.”
Matt Abrahams: All right. I have a plan to automate customer service.
Debra Schifrin: What do you think it will take to implement that plan? All right, generally supportive. Say it again.
Matt Abrahams: I have a plan to automate customer service.
Debra Schifrin: What do you think it will take to implement that plan? Oh, wow, that’s very different. Just emphasize one word that and it to the entire tone and context of the meeting.
Matt Abrahams: So your point, Debra, is very clear. Tone really does matter in question asking. And I would argue in most communication, having this conversation with you has helped me realize that we can get better answers if we ask better questions. So what goes into a good question?
Debra Schifrin: I like to use words that are related to values. Words like impact. Example would be, Matt, how does your decision impact your self and the organization? Mm hmm. Yeah, something like that. What’s important or what’s at stake? Mm hmm. And one that I love is always at the end of a project. And I’ll say to you, man, what can we create from here? What can we create from here? And that just assumes that people are creative. And once let’s assume that people rise to the occasion and they free themselves to make suggestions they might not otherwise make.
Matt Abrahams: I really like that. I like positioning the person in the conversation in a very different perspective through the question that you ask.
Debra Schifrin: Oh, can I add one more thing? When a project is over, people often forget to ask questions that will get a catalog of what went well, what skills they use to succeed. How did your team accomplish the task? So when it’s all said and done, you got the project. Make sure you ask what went well.
Matt Abrahams: I love your list of questions, it’s about open questions, not close questions, it’s about asking people to reflect and really think about the experience they had, what it felt like, what they learned from it, how they can apply it. Thinking about impactful words like how I did that, I used one of your impactful words and then and then making sure that you ask questions about when a project is complete. That’s fantastic advice for four good questions to ask.
Speaking of advice, what advice would you give to business leaders regarding question asking?
Debra Schifrin: Whether you’re a leader or anywhere in the organization, it takes some bravery to ask questions. If you don’t know what the answer will be as adults, as scary kids, ask a lot of questions. Yes, they do. What colors the moon and what is dinner? But adults don’t ask as many questions because it’s a little scary. You’re handing the control of the conversation to someone else and you have this fear that it can harm your psyche. In summary, my advice is to leave time for questions and be open to the answers, ones that you want to hear or answers that you don’t want to hear and then assess how much meeting time you spend asking versus telling people what to do. So inquiry versus statements.
Matt Abrahams: That last point about speaking time and how they’re allocated versus inquiry or statements. We’ve heard that before. When Bob Sutton was on the podcast, we spoke a little bit about it and he said from his perspective in his research, he’s found that leaders who ask more questions are perceived as better leaders, have better data to make decisions, and actually people like them more. So there’s a whole lot of value to following the advice of making sure to leave time for questions, the opening to be open to the answers and then pay attention to how much time you’re actually asking questions versus just making statements. So thank you for that really important advice.
Now, you’ve done a lot of question asking throughout your life as a reporter, as a coach and a teacher. What are some best practices for question asking and does the context matter?
Debra Schifrin: Yes, the context definitely matters. You have to know who’s in the room, what their agendas are, what their needs are. So that’s something you have to figure out before you figure out the question or even the type of question you want to ask in terms of best practices of frame it this way. I feel like a lot of these practices stem from a mindset of curiosity. So if I were interviewing you, Matt, but this is not just for interview, but if I were an NPR reporter, like I was interviewing you and you say something that surprises me or has emotional charge, I want to follow up on that and ask you another question. I’ve come with my list of 10 questions to ask you those questions, but I don’t have to stick to that script. I can just go off script and come back. What I do as a journalist is I have my list, but I say in advance these three questions I absolutely need answers to. But the rest, if I hear something interesting, I go for it.
Matt Abrahams: That’s really, really interesting. So if you take time to listen thoroughly and ask questions, you can actually learn a lot more information.
Debra Schifrin: What do you think about being curious? You’re listening for information that’s interesting and surprising, but you’re also in a state where you’re curious about the other person and you’re not just asking them questions from your own frame of reference. Matt, if I were interviewing you, I would want to do questions that delight or engage you or questions you may not have thought about before.
So here’s an example. I was at my brother’s house and he had a friend over who was a physicist. He worked at UC Berkeley as a postdoc. So I thought, oh, I’m interested in physics, but I don’t know much. But I know something. I’ll ask him the question that I know. So I said, “Are you a theoretical physicist or an applied physicist?” He answered the question. It was an OK question, but he didn’t get very excited about it. So then I thought for a minute and I asked him, “What’s something surprising that happened for you this year?” And suddenly he lit up. He got so animated. He was talking about these things that he had done in his lab and he was picking up things on the table like a cup or a plate and showing me how math works by using these a cup and a plate. And so at the end, I found out that he discovered something pretty cool. It was connecting mathematics to a particle that scientists think is related to dark matter. So, of course, I can’t understand the full scope of what that means, not being a physicist. But it was pretty amazing. And if I hadn’t asked that question, that never would have happened.
Matt Abrahams: Wow.
So, again, it’s being curious and really thinking about how to help, how to put the other person in a position where they can can share an answer that’s really meaningful for them.
Debra Schifrin: Yeah. And I would say this is good for leaders as well. When you ask some question, ask them a question that enables them to speak from their perspective. So I ask those open questions, give them a chance to speak from their base of knowledge and not what they think you want them to say based on your frame of knowledge.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent way to summarize that. Let me ask you this, do you have a secret weapon or trick up your sleeve that you use to get to insightful and surprising responses?
Debra Schifrin: I do. I call it “the killer last question.” And I have to tell you what it is and how you ask it. That’s very important. There’s several steps.
I’m talking with someone and we’ve had a conversation, we’ve built rapport, and it’s time to end the conversation or the interview. So I say to them, “Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think is important?” And then here’s the next step. And this is really important. I had to wait, had to wait in silence and be comfortable with the silence, and then nine out of 10 times the person says, I don’t think so.
But then you wait again.
Another, it could be like eight seconds and then they will say the most interesting thing that they said in the whole interview. I think this happens because you are turning the control over to them, you’re handing them the mic, you are putting them in the driver’s seat, and so it creates a condition where they’re more likely to share something or, at the end of this conversation, we’ve been talking about a lot of things, it lets them ask a question of themselves and get to an answer. So something they’re excited about.
Matt Abrahams:You know, it’s interesting that you bring that technique up of waiting because waiting is something I always coach people to do. People don’t like that awkward pause. So they’ll ask a question. And if nobody responds immediately, then they’ll just move on. I had never really thought of that pause allowing people to really do some self reflection and really having that be an opportunity for people to to dig deeper and provide more information or disclose something that’s, that’s a little more personal. So I really like that.
Debra Schifrin: Let’s do an experiment for our listeners. I think the real question that you have never heard. Right. You don’t know what I’m going to say. I have no idea. I’m locked in this cone of silence and then ask it to you once and then I’ll ask it in a different way and see how the results change. All right. So I’m going to answer it twice. Go for it. Here’s the first question. Today’s podcast will be really great, right?
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, this would be a great podcast.
Debra Schifrin: Let me ask him a different way. What is important to you about today’s podcast?
Matt Abrahams: I so hope that people listen to your passion for asking questions to really bond and build on relationships people have that.
I hope when people are done listening that they feel they have the tools and the energy to go do what you do.
Debra Schifrin: So those are the two questions, you can see the difference. The first question, though, I asked if I could get any information and then did you feel pigeonholed?
Matt Abrahams: One, there really was only one answer, but what have I got to say that right? But the second question really allowed me to to give insight into the work that I did and you did in preparation for this and really let people know that we really want people to take good value from what it is we do. So I totally appreciate the difference and I can see why you are a good question asker. So so thank you for that.
Now, this whole time we’ve talked today, Debra, has been about questions and answering. Would you indulge me and answer the three questions that I ask of all of our guests at the end of our podcast?
Debra Schifrin: Absolutely. If you listen to the answers, I’ll tell you anything.
Matt Abrahams: I will absolutely listen. Question number one, if you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would that be?
Debra Schifrin: Be present and build on others ideas. Hmmm, this this is the improv wisdom that’s come down decades and decades to me today and the people I’m teaching.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Thank you. Let me ask you, question number two, who is a communicator that you admire and why?
Debra Schifrin: I’m really interested by Kamala Harris right now. She is very calm at the same time. She’s very passionate. Mm hmm. It’s a great combination and she owned the room. A lot of politicians are very stiff. Mm hmm. If she’s not, she moves, but she moves with purpose. So once she moves, there’s a reason and it’s very clear. And the last thing about her is that she has mastered the smile for all occasions. She has a right smile. Whether she’s debating Mike Pence or introducing Joe Biden, she has a right smile and smiling can be really tricky for women.
Matt Abrahams: Tell me more about smiling and the challenges involved in that.
Debra Schifrin: I’ve seen a lot of women be given the communication advice to smile more. And I think it’s really undermining because we know what we want to say and how we want to say it. And if given the advice to smile more, essentially, we’re being told to be nicer, to see more pleasant, to even be more feminine. And those can be really undermining messages. And I see it all the time. So sometimes as a woman, it’s hard to remember that you own your smile, you own your presentation, and that you should do what’s best for you.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Let me ask question number three, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Debra Schifrin: I want to go back to, again, to “be present.” and I’ll tell you a little bit more about why it keeps you grounded.
It connects you to your audience of one or a thousand, and it keeps that inner critic, that judge away from you. We all have that critic that right now is saying, I’m talking to you. I am thinking about what I said just a minute ago and judging it, “Was that stupid?” And then right now I’m talking to you and I might find a judge. I might be judging myself. “What I’m saying right now is stupid.” And then move on to the next question. I’m not listening because I’m thinking about the stupid thing I said a moment ago. A judge is really powerful. And if we can be present, we can move that judge out of the way. That’s number one.
Number two, I would say rigorously prepare, but be ready to go off script, you need both of those pieces you have. You really have to prepare. I know you’ve said this in the past also that that there’s no substitute for preparation, but you need to be ready to go off script lead with energy and commitment to the audience. If you do that, you will engage your audience. They see that you want to be there, that you’re excited to be there, and that you are there for them 100%. And when you do that, it will give you more confidence and confidence will improve your credibility in front of your audience.
Matt Abrahams: I really like your recipe a lot, being present in preparing, but being willing to to go with what’s needed in the moment, really powerful. And then, of course, being audience-centric and doing so in an energetic way will help. You know, Debra, thank you so much. As we wrap up, I find myself asking a question, what are my takeaways from today? And the answer is abundantly clear.
Questions can really help our communication, by taking the time to plan our questions and actively listen to the answers, we can build camaraderie and closeness and ultimately improve our communication.
Thank you so much for your time and for your insight.
Debra Schifrin: It’s been my pleasure.
Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business.
To learn more, go to GSB.Stanford.edu. Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.
(As published on the Stanford GSB website.)
March 16, 2021