Asking Better Questions

Posted on December 18, 2019

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This guest blog is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, the Assistant to the Town Manager in Hudson, Colorado. Read Matt’s writing about criticizing other cultures professionally, understanding privilege, understanding identity, and impressing in meetings.

In local government, we ask a lot of questions. Whether to reach out to our citizens to better understand their priorities, to clarify the goals of our diverse departments, or to reach out to other communities and experts for best practices, questions are central to our success. However, there is a finesse to how we ask to ensure our questions send the right message and get the answers we need. Here are a few ways I’ve found to make my own questions more effective.

1. Put in the effort first and show it

A common misstep we make with questions is we ask them too soon. When we hit even the smallest hurdles it can be very tempting to reach out to someone right away to figure out how to solve the issue, decipher the language in an ordinance, or determine who to invite to a regional meeting. However, it helps to do some work to prepare first. 

  • “I read through the ordinance, and I think I can interpret it in a couple of different ways. What do you think?”
  • “Here’s the list I put together on who to invite. Is there anyone missing, or someone I put on who doesn’t need to come?”

By putting in the effort and demonstrating it, we legitimize the question as part of positive, forward momentum in our work.

2. Focus on outcomes over ability

It’s good every now and then to review our job description. If we’re supposed to be a trainer, we should avoid asking how to train. If we are meant to do research, to supervise, or some other department-specific niche, we should avoid asking, “How do I do my job?” As an alternative, we can phrase our questions around our desired outcomes.

  • “How do I ensure the employees get these three takeaways from the training?”
  • “What sources will get me the best information for this report?”
  • “Why is this employee falling short of expectations, and how can we help them get back on track?”

By focusing on outcomes, our questions highlight that we are actively engaging and fulfilling our job instead of floundering at it.

3. Define the desired answer

Asking questions is often seen as an unequal exchange, where one person has the experience/knowledge/answers and the other person has the uncertainty/ignorance/questions. In practice, though, those of us asking questions hold a lot of the information and can share what we know as part of the conversation. Even if whoever we’re talking to is an expert in the subject, we can still offer our project/community/personal experience to guide their answer.

  • “I wanted to ask you about 5G wireless broadband. You see, we’re a smaller community that’s relatively flat, and I’ve heard that 5G may be a good option. I’m looking for some details on how the technology works.”
  • “We’ve been working on this proposal for some time now, but before we make it public wanted to double-check with you. As a representative of the community we’re looking less for typos and grammatical errors, and more for your thoughts on how we come across and whether we seem transparent or not.”

The more we define our question, add context, include parameters, state what we’re looking for, the more our questions become a collaborative process.

4. Professionalize frustrations

Our questions can stem from frustrations. We put a lot of effort into an idea only to find out it’s not relevant or supported. Sometimes we hit a wall with a stubborn citizen, a stakeholder group that’s not responding to calls or emails, or the numbers in the budget aren’t enough to get the work done. It’s easy and natural to use our questions in these moments to vent personal angst and frustration, but it is a missed opportunity. We can instead tweak our questions to reflect our passion for our work.

  • “It’s frustrating because we have a single citizen who keeps suggesting we don’t care when he’s one of the people we’re trying to help with this program. Is there a different approach to trying to work with him that we’re missing?”
  • “This group doesn’t appear to have the time or interest in being involved, but I really feel we need their input if we’re to get this done right. Can we just go over to their office, or some other more direct way since what we’ve tried hasn’t worked?”
  • “I think we really need to do our best to get this program completed this year, but we’re short by a good $10,000, maybe $15,000. Can we find a way to make this work?”

By making our frustrations about doing good work and helping our residents, we turn annoyance into commitment and reframe grievance into dedication.

5. Multiply success

Success, like many things, is not a fixed pie. It can be shared, expanded, multiplied. One way we can ask better questions is by following through and giving thanks where it’s due. If done right, we not only give credit to those who helped us but in turn suggest we’re wise for asking them in the first place.

  • “I’m really glad we reached out to this community. They’re a similar size, had done the project before, and provided the insights that made our own work a success.”
  • “This is the person to ask these sorts of questions to, we did the smart thing by getting their input.”

In this process, we create a culture around asking questions and make it easier to be collaborative and inquisitive for future tasks and projects.

Our questions tell a story, and it is up to us to tell a story of competent, dedicated professionals. Use these methods, tweak them, and find more effective ways to communicate. Best of luck. 

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