For the past few weeks I’ve been writing about the importance of asking questions to connect the dots, solve the right problem, and seek understanding.  What I haven’t written about yet is how to ask the RIGHT questions. I think its an important part, don’t you?

Recently, I saw this brilliant graphic by Yulia Kosarenko on LinkedIn, and I asked her permission to share it on my blog. (She said yes!) It is through the lens of a Business Analyst (read her entire article here) and although you may not be a BA, I believe it makes a solid case for the importance of asking the right questions.

Used with permission by Yulia Kosarenko

Let’s dive into a couple points Yulia made.

First, a front dive into questions that identify root cause.  I recommend the trusted classic 5 Whys approach.  Ask Why about the problem, then ask Why about the answer to the first Why.  Then ask Why a second time about the answer from the first Why. Then ask Why a third time about the answer from the second Why, and so on.

Perhaps this visual will help explain what I mean.


Here’s another visual with a real example.

Know this! The number 5 isn’t a magic number, so keep in mind that this technique really is about asking Why as many times as needed to uncover the root cause.

Second, a back dive into questions that resolve ambiguity. To ensure we don’t have any ambiguity around the meaning of “ambiguity”, here is the definition: a word or expression that can be understood in two or more possible ways (thank you Merriam-Webster).

Ambiguity can happen because we aren’t clear on where we are headed and why.  For example, “We need to do better this quarter.” The word better is up for interpretation because it is ambiguous.  Does it mean we need to bring in more revenue? Cut down on costs? Reduce lead time? Be more creative?  If you want to reduce ambiguity to increase collective understanding and likelihood of success, try these –

  • Why are we doing this?
  • Why aren’t we doing that?
  • What questions do we need to ask that we haven’t?
  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What is the vision?
  • How might others see this differently?
  • What actions do we need to take and when?

Ambiguity can also happen because the speaker doesn’t use clear, direct language. If you’re a Minnesotan, you might use this phrase that non-native Minnesotans often feel is ambiguous (or passive aggressive): “That’s an interesting thing to say.”  Does interesting mean holding the attention: arousing interest (thank you again Merriam-Webster)? Does it mean I am too nice to tell you what you are saying is ridiculous? Does it mean Why would you ever say that?

Since we don’t have control over what others say to us, we need to do the work on our end to resolve ambiguity by asking questions.  Try these –

  • Can you give me an example of what you mean?
  • Do you mean X?
  • What that means to me is …. Is that what it means to you?
  • Are you saying ….?
  • So, you’re saying …. Is that correct?
  • Will you explain that in another way, so I can be sure I understand?

Okay, you should be set to ask the right questions. BUT before you click to your next article or task, I’d love to read what questions you ask to identify root cause or resolve ambiguity. Comment below.

(Click here to learn about listening to understand vs. listening to reply.)