By February 12, 2009 12 Comments Read More →

Cutting Questions

CuttingQuestions
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How can you cut to the chase?  What’s an effective approach for clearing the air of ambiguity and getting to facts?  Ask cutting questions.   A cutting question is simply a question that cuts to the chase and reveals insightful information.  The most effective people I see, don’t ask a lot of questions.  They ask the right ones. 

Examples of Cutting Questions

Here’s some examples of cutting questions:

  • Who’s on board?   This is a reality check of whether you have the support you need.  If you’re honest here, you can quickly realize who you need to get on board or at least be aware of some threats to your plans.
  • Who are five customers that stand behind you?  My previous manager, Per, always asks this question to litmus test the value of a project.  As simple as it sounds, having five separate customers stand behind you is a start.  I’m in the habit of litmus checking my path early on to see who’s on board or to find the resistance.  As customers get on board, my confidence goes up.  I’ve also seen this cutting question work well with startups. I’ve asked a few startups about their five customers.  Some had great ideas, but no customers on board.  The ones that had at least five are still around.
  • Next steps?  At the end of any meeting, Per never fails to ask “next steps?”, and the meeting quickly shifts from talk to action.
  • What does your gut say?    This is about checking your intuition.  Per taught me to check my intuition by asking what my gut says, before doing deeper analysis.   It’s a great sanity check.  Many times your gut will say one thing, while your logical mind might say another.  W/hat I’ve found is that often my intuition picks up on something
  • Is it working?  Is it effective?  “Is it working?” is a pretty cutting question.  It’s great because it forces you to step back and reflect on your results and consider a change in approach.
  • What would “x” say? (for example, what would your peers say?)   This is a great perspective question.  It forces you to see through other people’s eyes.  Usually, you can figure out what somebody might say.  If there’s resistance, this is something to pay attention to.  You may not like what you think people will say, but at least you’re prepared.
  • What’s their story?    This is about empathic listening.  If you’re only analyzing the situation from your side, see how well you can tell the story through the other person’s eyes.  This can be very revealing and lead you to new insights or at least better understanding.
  • Where’s your prioritized list of scenarios?   A scenario is simply a usage scenario or story.  For example, let’s say you have a bunch of chores for fixing your house.  Instead of a laundry list of tasks, you can group them by meaningful scenarios.  For example, one scenario might be you want to relax on your deck.  Another scenario might be you want to play in the yard.  You can then prioritize the tasks that make those scenarios possible.   I’ve used this approach for all types of projects from housework to yard work to building software.

Practice Your Cutting Questions
You have a lot of chances every day to practice cutting questions:

  • Self-talk.  Thinking is just asking and answering questions.  Improve the questions you ask yourself to improve your answers.
  • Reading.  When you’re pleasure reading, it’s fine to let your mind wander.  When you’re reading to learn, the best approach is to ask cutting questions so that you can quickly find the information you need.
  • On the job.  You can ask cutting questions of your performance.  You can ask cutting questions of your manager to figure out what they value and what their top concerns are.  You can ask cutting questions for any project work you take on.

The beauty is you get lots of chances to practice every day if you look for them.  You can really improve your cutting questions simply by testing different questions throughout the day, and tuning your approach.

Improving Your Questioning Skills

Improve your questioning skills.  There’s lots of techniques for improving your questioning skills.  Here are some of my related posts:

The more effective you get at asking cutting questions, the less surprised you’ll be.  Better questions leads to better information.  Better information leads to better decisions, thoughts, feelings, and actions.

What’s your favorite cutting questions?

12 Comments on "Cutting Questions"

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  1. “What would “x” say?” is my favorite.
    I am a big fan of role play. When at customer’s I always use this technique when trying to turn down “bad” idea or promote a better one.
    What would x say? – works like a charm! Many times, almost always people fall in trap of bringing ideas like “it’s possible to do X” or “Our best practice is Y”.
    Oh, yeah? And what X would say about your best practice?….
    Cutting question! – Big Time!

  2. Ooh, I like these JD. As I get older (and wiser?) I notice myself having much lower tolerance for people who take too long to cut to the chase. I especially like “Who’s on Board?” That’s such a great one for getting to the heart of what people are really feeling.

  3. David Zinger says:

    You write so well and offer so much. I liked your line: I’m in the habit of litmus checking my path early on to see who’s on board or to find the resistance. Great questions to practice.

  4. JD says:

    @ Alik

    I love how you can instantly put yourself in another person’s shoes, simply by asking the right question. It’s a fast way to change mindsets and get new perspective.

    @ Christine

    Thank you. I know what you mean. There’s power in precision. I love how a great question can get right to the point.

    @ David

    Thank you. Finding the resistance has served me well. It’s resistance that can cause an idea or movement to die a slow death.

  5. I love it, “cut to the chase.” Asking better questions is the key to getting what you want, and when done with skill would definitely help you to get to the point. An important skill to master.

    Thank you,
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  6. Michael T. says:

    JD:
    I WOKE UP THIS MORNING WITH THE VERY REAL SENCE THAT I HAD TO LEARN.
    I HAD AS MY FOCOUS, LEARNING A BETTER WAY TOWARD ORDER IN MY DAY.
    YOUR SITE WAS THE FIRST I ARRIVED TO, OVER A MORNING COFFEE.
    THANK YOU VERY, VERY MUCH, IS ALL I CAN SAY!
    FELT THAT I WAS LED HERE, WAS VERY MOVED WHILE I WAS HERE, AND IM STAYING HERE!!!
    IM SITTING IN THE CAYMAN ISLANDS THIS MORNING, LOOKING OUT OVER THE SEA WITH MY COFFEE;
    AND THE PEACE I GOT FROM YOUR WONDERFUL SITE RIVALED THIS MAGNIFICENT SETTING!!
    THANKS BROTHER!
    FOR YOUR WONDERFUL WORK!
    THERE ARE NOW AN OCEAN OF POSSABILITIES!!!

  7. Some people just seem to be so good at cutting to the chase without seeming overbearing or wimpy. Maybe it’s a personality thing? They’re just born with it?

  8. Evelyn Lim says:

    I’m wondering that while it’s effective to “cut to the chase”, will it sound too cold? Perhaps we need to use these tips only during appropriate times?

  9. I’m working on a project right now with a friend. He asked me to find 5 companies that would be interested in the idea. At first I thought he was crazy. We should create the product first. The thing is, no one may want it. Then we are stuck with all this wasted time and money.

    We have to test the waters and check back often to make sure we are heading in the right direction.

  10. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Giovanna

    I agree. It really helps in today’s info overloaded world. I get so much information each day that to really improve I need to constantly ask the right questions. On a good note, I’ve found that asking the right questions definitely is a skill that gets better with practice. I get surprised a lot less now that I ask better questions.

    @ Micahel

    Great to hear! Life sounds good in the Cayman Islands, but I’m glad you found my blog to compliment your day.

    As a quick tip, while you can browse the tag cloud or categories, I think the best way to explore the blog is through the archive link. It makes it very fast to scan and find the posts you need.

    @ Jannie

    That’s a good question. Some people cut to the chase abruptly. Some have a way of just asking the right question.

    I’ve seen people improve through training, so while there might be natural talent, I think skills go a long way.

    @ Evelyn

    Already you are using cutting questions ;)

    I think it’s about blending styles and starting with rapport. For self-talk, it’s less of an issue. For teamwork, it’s more about first making it safe, building rapport, and improving knowledge flow through skillful dialogue, which includes empathic listening and matching styles.

    @ Karl

    You’re right. It might look good on paper or even sound great, but if that’s the case, five customers should want it before you start. It would suck to get to the end and get surprised. In fact, one of today’s trends is customer-connected engineering to help reduce risk and reduce ambiguity around customer requirements.

    The 5 customer test is such a life safer. It sounds so easy to get five customers on board once you have something, but I’ve been surprised time and again. I’ve seen startups fail because they failed the five customer test.

    The first time my manager asked me for five customers I laughed because it seemed like such a low number. Then when it came to point to five actual customers, I realize the value.

  11. Rob Boucher says:

    Good stuff. Interesting thing this brings to mind is how political people know about this and often bypass the questions asked in favor of answering another question they’ve formed in their mind.

    So in the area of “question judo” this is a point people might consider. Sometimes questions are presented in such a way as to take you down a certain path. Looking closely at the questions that your boss, leader or family member is asking can teach you what they see as important. If you are having interaction issues with people, this could also be an issue. For example – If someone is only asking you what is broken and that’s all you answer to them, you may understand why you feel a certain way around that person.

    Rob

  12. JD says:

    @ Rob

    You’re hitting a really good point. I think Dr. K would refer to it as blending with needs in communication (action, accuracy, approval and appreciation.)

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