Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance in European Parliament last week was a textbook example of how a poor meeting format can be your worst enemy.
European lawmakers had hoped to grill Facebook’s CEO on important issues such as data privacy, fake news and the social network’s market dominance. It ended in an anticlimax. Although the questions were generally more incisive than those asked during the hearings in Washington last month, Zuckerberg sailed through without making any substantial pledges.
The hearing left some participants outraged. Guy Verhofstadt, a member of European Parliament and former Belgian Prime Minister, vented his frustration at the end: “I asked you six yes and no questions - I got not a single answer.”
So what went wrong? TechCrunch sums it up nicely in this article: “Mark Zuckerberg got to cherry-pick questions he wanted to answer from EU parliament after it spent an hour taking turns rattling off queries in bulk before leaving just a half-hour for his batched responses.”
In other words, European lawmakers were fighting with their hands tied behind their back. The meeting’s design didn’t allow for a back and forth interaction, which made it virtually impossible to pin down Zuckerberg.
The same dynamics apply to business conversations. If you ask multiple questions at once in a high-stakes setting like this, it’s not hard to imagine which ones will be answered. Your conversational partner (CP) will simply pick the most favorable question and use it as a runway to well-rehearsed talking points, which is exactly what Zuckerberg did.
In most circumstances, less is more when it comes to asking questions. The best way to elicit information is to just ask one question at a time and then be silent to let the other side speak. Or, as Socratic dialogue expert Hans Bolten puts it, ‘try to ask a question as you would shoot an arrow’. Don’t attempt to snatch it out of mid-air or change its course and show restraint by keeping your other arrows in your quiver.
Just ask the question: nothing more, nothing less.
Unlike the politicians in the Facebook hearing, we have ample opportunity to exercise such questioning discipline in our daily conversations. But if you thought we are taking full advantage of that freedom, think again. Consider the following situations, which I frequently come across in my daily conversations:
- We ask multiple choice questions. “Are you thinking about X, Y or Z?” This approach might raise the impression that you are only seeking confirmation of your own ideas, which doesn’t encourage your CP to share his thinking.
- We use too many twists and turns to lead in our questions, which might prompt our CP to ask ‘sorry, what’s the question?’ You should phrase your questions in such a way that they are easy to understand.
- We contaminate our questions with examples, suggestions and explanations, offering our CP an easy way out – particularly if interests are not aligned. “So you wouldn’t do that? Because I suppose you also want what’s best for the company.” Well-trained CPs will likely use these added words against you by addressing the underlying assumption and dodging the core question.
- We add a disclaimer after asking a perfectly fine critical question to make it sound less harsh. For example: “I’m asking this because my superiors would like to know, although I suppose it’s not as bad as they think, right?” Invoking a third party can be a powerful tool in meetings, but you shouldn’t use it to neutralize your own question.
- Our questions move in multiple directions, leaving our CPs confused or giving them the option to pick their favorite theme to riff on. In the following example the question should focus on either the problem or the solution. “What are you going to do about it (the solution)… I mean, everybody says this issue should be addressed immediately (the need for a solution).”
We tend to talk too much and ask too little when phrasing questions
In summary, asking multiple questions in a row is just the tip of the iceberg. We tend to talk too much and ask too little when phrasing our questions - and those added words are not without risks. Of course, there can be good reasons to throw a curveball or charge a question with additional information from time to time. But in most situations, you’re better off keeping your questions simple and focused on their intended purpose.
Exercise questioning discipline
Last week’s hearing in Brussels serves as a reminder why it’s important to exercise such questioning discipline. If you don’t, you risk losing control or hurting the conversation by putting words in the mouth of your CP.
Unlike the participants in the Zuckerberg hearing, we don’t face any format restrictions in our daily conversations. We can have an actual conversation – asking one question at a time and using follow-ups to dig deeper - and we usually only have ourselves to blame if we don’t. So count your blessings, simplify your questions and let them be. Just imagine yourself shooting an arrow.