Ask Simple Questions

Continuing on the theme of staffing from the last two newsletters, I want to share some insights prompted by an article that David Brooks wrote in the New York Times a few years ago titled “Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations.”

One of the points that resonated for me was the notion that you should always try to ask open-ended questions. Brooks writes that “many of us have a horrible tendency to ask questions that imply judgment: Where did you go to school?” Or, he says, “We ask yes/no questions: Did you have a good day?” These questions, he says, “basically shut off interesting answers.”

Brooks suggests that better questions start with “What was it like?” or “Tell me about a time…”

This is good advice for nonprofit managers. I think that one of the best ways to know what’s really going on with your organization is just to talk to the people doing the work. I would sometimes take a sack lunch and eat with employees or drop in and sit in the back row of a meeting to observe, listen, and learn.

I always asked simple questions: What is going on here? Why are deadlines slipping? What would you do to fix that?

The key is to listen respectfully so that your staff are comfortable sharing what’s going on and comfortable giving you actionable information.

Q: Do you ask simple open-ended questions of your staff?
Q: “Did you have a good day?” How can you get beyond asking too many yes/no questions?

Here’s a free, shareable link to Brooks’ original article.

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