Is this the right question?

Written by Martin Lucas

There is a neuroscience connection between the way you ask questions and the area of the brain where the answer is triggered. It’s all about context and the science of thought. Our focus today is on ‘What, How and Why’ questions. Here is the science behind them:

WHAT questions

When I ask you ‘What’ questions, I am speaking directly to your conscious mind; it’s the easiest question to ask, stuff like:

What do you think of that new TV show?

What are you going to wear tonight?

What do you think of my idea?

The brain has no problem answering these questions because the answers are what we call surface responses. They are called surface responses because the answers are literally sitting at the top of our mind, so these questions are easy enough to answer.

HOW questions

When I ask you ‘How’ questions I’m changing tact and speaking to your subconcious mind, in this case it’s where your behaviours sit. For example:

How do you change the channel to that new TV show?

How will you dress tonight?

How would my idea work in your opinion?

‘How’ questions are a little more challenging because you’re being asked to justify how you do things. It’s a knowledge grab based on your experience, opinion and how you’re wired to do things. Behaviours are a little easier to explain IF the question is how-based. Now, here comes the troublemaking question...

WHY questions

When I ask you ‘Why’ questions I’m challenging you with something that is really difficult to understand as it’s exploring why you do what you do and we are often not aware of our ‘whys’. A few examples:

Why do you like that type of TV show?

Why do you dress the way that you do?

Why do you judge my idea to be worthy of working on?

Now, as the tricky customers we are, people can often give surface responses to ‘why’ questions - we can fall into ‘just because’ answers. The reality is that 92% of our decisions are made without us having a conscious understanding of why we make them. Who knows that the reason someone adores wearing purple clothes all the time is that their Gran told them purple was the colour of magic when they were three years old? We don’t, do we? That’s the tricky part of human behaviours and I will explain why (see what I did there?) at the end. For now, let me share some examples.

The truth of culture

A client of ours is going through a stage of rapid growth. They’re creating lots of new teams and new positions, so the challenge is maintaining the quality of personnel that helped you hit the levels of growth that got you to this point of positive change in the first place.

Their HR team asked us how to understand and solve this challenge. Part of our solution was an internal survey; here’s what we suggested and why.

  1. Survey is a maximum of 10 questions

Why: Anything longer and you will get surface responses from your employees, as they feel short on time and you will diminish the return if they feel like the survey is overkill.

Tip: Avoid generating that ‘let’s just get it over with’ feeling.

  1. Include eight WHAT questions

Why: Keep it easy and you will get honesty.

  1. Make it confidential.

Why: Keep it confidential and you will get the truth.

  1. Split the questions to be half about culture and half about the market.

Why: You will find out the truth about the good and bad of your company. The same is true for understanding your marketplace and what your staff is excited about.

  1. Include two WHY questions.

Why: One for culture, one for marketplace. Ask them to justify their point of view.

Result: Quality, balanced insight gained to enhance their job adverts and interview process to fuel their rapid growth.

Case study interviews

Another of our clients is executing a strategy we created for them - being the expert voice of your market. Part of this strategy is to show the voice of your customers. Here is the WHAT and WHY:

  1. Trust

Why: No matter how well I write, no matter how helpful I am in this article, you will want customer proof to know I can be trusted before you engage with me. Hearing from your clients is an ultimate win.

  1. Eight Questions

Why: We used six WHAT questions, one HOW and one WHY. The difference between this and the survey is that we added a HOW question so we could trigger the customer to share WHAT they enjoyed about the process the client provided them and HOW it was different to others.

Result: Easiest possible process with added quality, a giant outcome of 55 videos so far, a quality armada of social proof. Customers very receptive to sharing their views, client very happy!

Celebrating Success

A teamwork, leadership and culture challenge from a client: they felt their internal process had lost its original lustre. For example, sending internal email shout-outs when an employee had done something exceptionally well. In short, they were correct; these shout-outs were getting lost in the normal armada of day-to-day emails. We shifted them to a more engaging process where the leader whose team member was to be celebrated recorded an interview (much easier to do than it appears, as you’ll see in the summary at the end). I loved this because email is way too subjective to the reader’s mood; it’s a dying form of communication whereas with video you see AND hear from the person directly.

We used three questions and this is why:

  1. WHAT question - What did you admire?

Why: Triggers the leader to express what they admired and this is great for clarity and demonstrating good leadership in a company.

  1. HOW question - How did they do it?

Why: Triggers them to talk about methods, tools and skills. It’s a culture win that shows the support offered  by the company to the employee to give them the best chance of success and of course the talent of their team #EverybodyWins

  1. WHY question - Why do you like this?

Why: Triggers them to share best practice which means other employees are aware of follow suit. This is what we call the Follower Mindset because it’s the human brain has a very common habit of following what other humans do.

Result: Improved process, more modern and engaging way of communicating, increased awareness.

Why asking WHY helps

Whilst asking what questions are easier when it comes to the examples provided above, it very much depends on your goals. WHY questions are the most powerful of all questions we can ask ourselves; after all ‘WHY’ is the anchor of Philosophy because it asks you to ponder the reason things are the way they are, or why you are the way you are.

Find the ‘why’ takes more mental effort and deeper understanding than ‘what’ and ‘how’, so you need to pick and choose when to ask WHY questions. By understanding how questions are processed in the brain, it becomes much easier to design how to extract the answers you need to match what goals.

At Mastermindset, we know that the power of understanding WHY makes all the difference to solving problems and generating growth, and we can explore this further another day.

TIP: Our preferred collaboration tool is Zoom, which makes delivering live and recorded communication incredibly simple and effective.