What’s the real question?

I was at a conference this morning where the guest keynote speaker was a cabinet minister and local MP.  After a short speech, he asked the audience for questions, some of which were quite pointed and challenging, for instance around investment in local transport and digital infrastructure.  I thought we were going to get one of those often-used politicians’ tactics where they say “the real question here is …” and go on to talk about something they feel more comfortable about.  In fairness, today’s speaker didn’t do that although he did manage to skirt around some of the questions.

Another speaker was talking about innovation and he encouraged us to “question the question”, using a very humorous example which if I shared it here would probably get me into trouble for a lack of political correctness!

I also remember our sales coach saying “you need to work out what’s the question behind the question?” when a prospect is quizzing you in a sales meeting.

So what is behind all these similar thoughts?

My interpretation is that we have all learned by copying other people or through direct experience to be careful about the questions we ask.  Sometimes we want to make a very gentle exploration of a subject, sometimes we want to find out how people react to a particular line of enquiry and on other occasions we don’t want to reveal everything we know or believe too early.  Of course, it could be that we haven’t fully formed our own thoughts and we don’t know what we want to find out.  Whatever the motive, the questioner is holding something back and it’s often a good idea to find out more about what they really want to know before committing to a full and frank answer.

Answering a question with another question could be seen as an avoiding strategy, but if it’s done with a clear and communicated intention of getting to the real issue, I think it will be well received and productive.