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How to Ask a Purposeful Question
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Blog Post

How to Ask a Purposeful Question

Dr. Tom Tonkin
Principal, Thought Leadership & Advisory Services

JULY 14, 2021

At an early age in your professional career, many were taught to seek 'why' people do things. Whether you are a sales person, a project manager, or an implementer, we were taught to ask 'why'. Even in your personal life, we continue to ask why someone would do something like that to us, or why did someone make that decision. Well, I'm here to tell you that is poor advice.

Let's Gain Clarity

We need to understand what we are truly seeking and how to go about getting the real answer we seek. The fact is that we really don't want to know why, but we want to know, for what purpose. Yes, there is a difference. When asking why, we are communicating that we seek justification when what we really want is to seek for what purpose, or value. By asking 'why', which implies justification, that places the individual in a defensive position. When one is placed in a defensive position, the sole objective is to reduce or eliminate the threat, which, in this case, is you. So long trying to get any meaningful information. Now, let’s get practical.

A Common Professional Scenario

Let’s say you are engaged with a customer, either internal or external. You seek to find purpose in a project or request. You immediately launch into 'why' questions. Your customer hears 'give me your justification'. They become defensive, believing they are not required to justify their request, especially to you. In their mind, you have crossed the line in a hierarchical position in the relationship. They begin to shut down and gaining information becomes increasingly difficult. You get frustrated and continue to ask questions, badgering the customer, sounding like a four-year-old (why, why, why). Eventually, they give you an answer, maybe even the justification for their request, which, unfortunately, is not really the information you need as it won't help you solve their problem or fulfill their request.

What To Do

Okay, so what should you do? The idea is to seek purpose or value so questions like "for what purpose do you need...?" or "if you had X what would that get you...?" might be more beneficial as they provide you with information that you can actually use. Providing solution that support others' purpose is really what you seek. By raising the discussion to a higher level, you are now coming across as one that wants to help. A by-product of this approach is that you being to understand not only the value you can bring, but also what your customer values, which is great insight for future discussions.

So, next time a customer has a request, or a loved one needs your help, seek to gain their purpose for the request and not place them in a defensive position by asking for their justification. You and your customer (and your loved one) will be happier and more fulfilled. #HappyLearning #HappyLife

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