Asking good questions is an important quality of a friend, a partner and a co-worker. It’s also particularly helpful in a work setting. Whether you are meeting with colleagues or attending your monthly board meeting, asking good and insightful questions without fear of “feeling stupid” is a valuable skill. Here are four tips for asking great questions at the boardroom table and beyond.

Research first, question second

Developing a clear understanding of the issue beforehand is important. Carving off time before your meeting to go over the background materials related to the issue at hand might seem simple, but you’d be surprised by the number of people going into meetings cold – without much preparation at all. I find that when sorting through the materials it’s helpful to jot down notes in the margin rather than trying to remember all my points. Bless the paper copy. Little codes that mark a comment, question or clarification required help ping the brain during a discussion. Other people use a script outlining the key areas (and questions) they want to discuss.

It is also makes sense to run your thoughts by someone else beforehand. Getting that second opinion can be particularly valuable when refining your questions and ensuring you have a concrete idea of the subject. Finally – give yourself some time to digest the ideas and information and then return to your questions for a final redraft.

Zoom out

After you’ve wrapped your head around the topic, consciously zoom out and think about whether you’ve considered all the implications of the subject in your question. Taking this “step back” can help you formulate more strategic questions and lead to more valuable insights. Try to avoid simple yes/no questions as they don’t leave much room for context and variables – important considerations when weighing complex issues.

Open your mind

Try to avoid going into the meeting with a completely pre-determined outlook. Sometimes that’s hard. Be excited about hearing other viewpoints and seek to balance them with your own perspective. If you aren’t clear on someone’s perspective, repeat it back to the person (“John, I’m interested in learning more about your perspective on this. My understanding of what you are trying to say is [INSERT YOUR PERSPECTIVE]. Am I correct?)

Repeating a point back to your friend, colleague or board member, not only forces your brain to understand and wrap around the issue at hand, but also serves to signal that you are listening and curious about another perspective. It also allows you to be corrected if you misinterpreted or misunderstood a point – an important step in clarifying miscommunication.

When you ask your question, open your mind to the possibility that you will probably be learning something new and interesting.

Be confident

Just because something is confusing to you doesn’t mean that everyone else isn’t confused, too. They might also be nervous about asking something “stupid”. If you’ve done your homework and paid attention at the meeting, trust in yourself to ask the question. Consider that by the very nature of your question, even if it concerns something many others at the meeting already understand, you may lead others to approach the issue from your own perspective.

 

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