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Ask More: Frank Sesno explores 11 types of smart questions

Ask More

By Frank Sesno

Amacom, 249 pages, $36.50

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Frank Sesno knows questions. You have probably seen him over the years on CNN in a variety of roles, probing, seeking understanding, and helping others to share their opinions with his viewers.

But he believes questions are for more than journalists. "Smart questions make smarter people. We learn, connect, observe and invent through the questions we ask," he writes in his book, Ask More.

Unfortunately, asking questions is never taught in school and most of us don't understand how to effectively use them. In all, Mr. Sesno - now director of the School of Media and Public Affair at George Washington University -- breaks them down into 11 types:

  • Diagnostic: Before you can fix a problem you need to know what it is. That makes these the ground floor of inquiry, the foundation on which other questions are built. What's wrong? How do we know? What are we not seeing? What can we do?
  • Strategic: These unveil the big picture, as you prepare for a big decision in your life. "Like an imaging satellite miles above the earth, strategic questions start wide and zoom in to see the landscape in detail," he notes. Get the big picture, recognize the challenge ahead, and then define your plan and what success would be.
  • Empathy: These probe feelings, seeking deeper, more emotional answers for what makes people tick. Helen Riess, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School he interviewed, advises the future doctors they have to do more than build rapport and ask the questions - they need to listen closely and sincerely, maintaining proper eye contact.
  • Bridging: These connect you with people who are distant, wary or hostile by getting them to talk, hopefully establishing rapport and perhaps even trust. They are gentle. "I like the shoes. Where did you get them?" Or: "That's interesting. I never thought of it that way before." You are building bridges.
  • Confrontational: These are the questions we associate with the 60 Minutes TV show, in your face and accusatory. You're not building bridges or looking for trust. You are getting answers, for the record.
  • Creativity: These questions encourage originality and risk-taking, asking people to consider new ideas. They invite the other person to daydream - to move beyond the possible. Imagine there are no obstacles; what would we do?
  • Mission: These search for shared purpose and a common goal, inviting others to join into a conversation. "They help you to convey your priorities. Mission questions require you to talk less and listen more," he observes.
  • Scientific: This involves disciplined inquiry to move beyond a world of instant answers into the scientific approach of data, experimentation, and observable fact. Too often, we act from untested instinct. Instead, he asks: "How would things have been different if you could have been more scientific in selecting the car you bought or the business you invested in? What if you could turn your search for answers into a science?"
  • Interviews: These help peer into the future and determine whether certain skills and personalities will work out. They are asked by hiring managers but also by knowledgeable candidates, seeking to be sure of fit. Why should we hire you? If you had a magic wand here, what would you do with it? What would your detractors say about you?
  • Entertaining: Here you are a host, asking questions that spice up conversations and bring out fascinating comments. You're like a talk show host, drawing out the guests and steering the conversation.
  • Legacy: These ask others about what they have done. The talented interviewer who wrote the book failed here with his own mother as she was dying. He wished he had asked: What are you proudest of in life? What's one story you would like me to tell my grandchildren about you?

The book covers a lot of territory, not just through the 11 categories but also in his interviews, ruminations, and scattered sample questions. At times that can be disconcerting if you are looking for simple answers but there's a lot to be learned from his thoughtful, in-depth exploration.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More


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