Ask the right questions

Ask the right questions

New in London at the age of twenty-one, I wanted to buy a typewriter. I was earning almost nothing and couldn’t afford a new one. So I looked at several second-hand ones. The one I like was a little above my price but the foreman at Brooke Bond’s where I was working persuaded me to buy it. I have mentally thanked him many times since. The cheapest is seldom the best. What did he do that persuaded me to buy this typewriter? He asked me questions. Not technical questions about the typewriter but questions about my aspirations to write, what I was going to write about, why I liked the idea of writing, what my end purpose was. For the time of buying a typewriter he became my mentor. Ted’s influence has lasted a long time.

Good communications are achieved by asking questions. But which are the right questions to ask? When you meet someone socially for the first time you probably ask identifying questions, which help you to define them. ‘Where do you come from?’, ‘What do you do?’ – clear, but they show little EI and no ability to read who you are addressing. Getting to know someone, however briefly, involves engagement – a two-way exchange, not an inquisition. I have to remind myself that I can be too ‘efficient’ with my questions. It is good to get to the heart of the matter when there is danger or urgency of some sort. In less traumatic situations people are more forthcoming when they are relaxed, not scared.

The kind of questions you ask are determined by the circumstances of your meeting. If you are interviewing a potential employee – or a potential boss (oh, yes, you should interview them, too) – you will want a mixture of facts and feelings. The basic facts should be in front of you from their CV or LinkedIn self-description. You may want to expand on one or two points that they have made but don’t spend much time doing that. It is more important for you to learn whether you can trust them and whether they have the initiative and drive to do the job for which you are interviewing them. Always find out how creative people are – it’s today’s key issue.

If you are meeting someone for the first time and you (may one day) want to get their help, you have a dual job to do. You need to present yourself as someone worthwhile. More importantly, you must find out what interests and appeals to them. In a world of such poor morality we must mix with as many decent people as we can. We first have to establish that they are decent. You only establish that as you get to know them but your opening observations and perceptions should help you to get started. Our instant judgments of people are not always right but they are usually a fair indicator of how we will find them as we learn more.

As with most things in life the business of getting to know someone is not a Roman Road, straight from A to B. It is a meandering river. We must meander with the river if we are to make a true assessment of the person. I had one boss in my life who was really good at this. He devoted a lot of time to me, posed me creative difficulties the business was having, listened to my ideas and was helpful when they were rubbish and encouraging when they were good.

The person you want to understand needs to hear from you, as well. Most people talk too much, often because they have a lot to say. You need to give of your life’s experiences and learnings but you also need to remember what Martin Luther King said: “the faculty of listening is a tender thing, and soon becomes weary and satiated”. A simple rule of ‘a question from you for every statement from you’ is helpful in correcting verbosity.

There is no satisfactory checklist of questions to ask people. That is because the process of learning about someone is one of relationships. Perceiving relationships is being creative. It demands observation, analysis, projection and sensing. Which two people in my life came nearest to ‘excellent’ at doing this? I’ll name one public figure and one private one. 

I think my father, Colin Bittleston, had an ability to judge people incredibly accurately. His generous nature made him give them the benefit of the doubt but he knew them well. Tamara Karsavina, the Prima Ballerina of the Mariinsky Ballet in 1917, had an ability almost to ‘infuse’ someone’s personality. She did it with grace and charm but with razor-sharp incision, too.

Reading people is an art. It has always been important.

Today it is vital.

Good morning

John Bittleston 

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05 August 2023