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Knowing how to ask productive questions is a talent – some say an art – which sets a good executive apart from one who is just average. Managers who limit their questions to those which lead to improvement or which reinforce current good business practices are more likely to advance rapidly in the ranks.

How many times have you attended an industry seminar during which some blowhard monopolizes the speakers time with countless trivial questions, mainly because he likes to hear the sound of his own voice? How many times have you been bored silly in a company meeting by some persistent windbag, whose questions are designed primarily to show that she already knows all the answers? While the slickest of these self-promoters may temporarily deceive upper management, their career path comes to a halt when it becomes obvious that there is no depth behind those performances.

A few suggestions concerning productive questioning:

1. Avoid becoming a professional asker of questions; being one doesnt impress anybody, and it will probably alienate your peers. Verbal time wasters and egoists are the parasites of the business world.

2. Limit yourself to those inquiries which clarify complicated issues or contribute to the overall understanding of the group. Avoid off the wall and hastily considered comments. Do not deliberately embarrass anyone with your questions.

3. Ask questions which focus the group on the most important issues. Dont waste their time, confuse them, or divert them to side issues of little importance. Each question should be intelligent, timely and appropriate to the discussion.

4. Think each question through and try to anticipate possible answers before going public. The question of a wise man is half the answer, observed the poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol, nearly a thousand years ago.

5. Develop the ability to ask leading, well-phrased questions which will guide the discussion in the direction you want it to go. This can be a powerful tool for accomplishing your goals.

6. Ask for clarification if you simply do not understand what you are hearing. As the English poet Robert Southey said, A question not to be asked is a question not to be answered.

7. Remember that you are better off not speaking at all than saying something foolish or inappropriate. It is not necessary to fill a sound void, particularly with less-than-helpful remarks.

8. But finally, dont hesitate to ask a truly sincere question, even if you think it may sound a bit silly. There are probably a lot of others in the room who are wondering about the same question, but who are afraid to ask it. If a question is properly motivated, it cannot be considered silly; it may even point the discussion in a more useful direction. The silly question, said philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, is the first intimation of some totally new development.

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