Rubbish in, rubbish out. The art of asking the right questions
My three-year old has just hit the “why” stage.
“Where are we going mummy?”
“To the shops.”
“To get some milk.”
“But why are we getting some milk?”
“Because we’ve run out.”
“Why have we run out?”
You get the drift.
While these clarifying questions can make for a frustrating car ride, I love the fact that kids have such curious natures, and these seemingly inane lines of questioning help them make sense of the world.
Why is the why important?
The ability to ask the right questions is an essential life skill. It can help us build better relationships, make better decisions and prevent us from jumping to the wrong conclusion.
One can’t help but wonder whether the heat currently being felt by the AMP and CBA boards could have been avoided if the directors had been more forthcoming with questions to management about the various practices that have since been uncovered by the Royal Commission.
A critical learning for me personally from the Australian Institute of Company Directors course I attended in Rottnest earlier this year was the need for directors to exercise constructive scepticism and independent thought.
Directors are individually liable for the collective decisions they make as a Board; there is no room for complacency.
I seem to be drawn to careers built on asking questions.
I spent seven years working as a journalist (don’t hold it against me), mostly in London writing about financial markets, and upon returning to Australia found myself working for CoreData, a market research consultancy (where I remain today, nearly nine years on).
In both of these professions, the interviewer can be just as influential as the interviewee in determining the quality of the output.
As a researcher, the ability to frame the right question is right up there with data accuracy in terms of importance.
The companies we work with rely on our ability to tease the right information out of people, in the most objective way possible.
The way the questions are framed is a critical piece in the market research puzzle.
Common qualitative research techniques
If you’re conducting qualitative research via focus groups or in-depth interviews, it’s important to use an experienced moderator.
Good focus group moderators and interviewers should be able to think on their feet, explore ideas raised by individuals in the group via probing, and guide the discussion effectively – without introducing any personal bias.
Often facilitators will use examples or cues to trigger participants' memories. For example, by asking them to think back to specific events and walk through their experience, you are getting them to relive what they felt and thought at the time.
Using a non-directive style, combined with projective interviewing techniques, the moderator can develop a deeper understanding of underlying consumer motivations, exploring the subconscious feelings, beliefs and desires that drive their decision-making.
Some of the most important roles of the focus group moderator include:
- Preventing group think
- Ensuring the discussion is ordered and flows
- Probing to uncover underlying motivational drivers
- Recognising socially desirable answers
- Moving on when a topic is exhausted
- Gauging participants’ moods effectively
- Showing genuine interest in responses
- Ensuring everyone's voice is heard
- Treading carefully when dealing with sensitive issues
- Using self-disclosure effectively
- Using simple, easy-to-understand language
- Encouraging diversity of thought by making it clear everyone's opinion is valid
- Avoiding favouritism among participants
- Building rapport quickly
- Practising active listening
- Politely controlling dominant members
Dealing with dominance
In every group, there will be a dominant participant. You can usually tell which person it’s going to be by where they sit; more often than not, they’ll place themselves right next to the moderator.
One technique for controlling dominant participants and engaging quieter participants is establishing a ‘go round’ procedure of asking questions to the whole group in turn. This demonstrates to those more reluctant to speak up that they will be expected to speak and can predict when this will happen to mentally prepare themselves.
Similarly, it lets dominant participants know everyone’s opinion will be sought – not just the loudest voice. Following an ordered process when putting questions to the group means you are able to shift to the next participant without seeming rude.
It usually helps to identify the more dominant participants early and give them a chance to say what’s on their mind and recognise their contribution. This can reduce their anxiety to be heard.
Asking the right questions is an art, not a science. Doing it well allows us to make better, evidence-based decisions – which at the end of the day are the only type of decisions we should be making.
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