[IMGCAP(1)]There’s a great scene in the original novel of Jurassic Park where the park operators ask their sophisticated surveillance system to locate all 49 of the dinosaurs they know they have bred. The surveillance system dutifully looks over the expanse of the park and counts all 49 dinosaurs — but then the iconoclast scientist in the group says they’re asking the wrong question. Instead, he asks the surveillance system to locate all dinosaurs in the park, and it quickly counts up well over a hundred, giving the park operators their first hint of the problem they have on their hands.

As any pollster will tell you, questions are tricky things — a fact I was reminded of during a great presentation by Ed Kless at the Illinois CPA Society’s Midwest Accounting & Finance Showcase a few weeks back. Kless, the senior director of partner development and strategy at Sage, and co-host of “The Soul of Enteprise” radio show with fellow thought leader Ron Baker, gave a talk all about the importance of questions, how to ask them, and how not to.

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying a fascinating topic, here are some major takeaways:

  • There is, in fact, such a thing as a silly question — and worse, there are bad ones. Questions are not always simple fact-gathering exercises; they can often be disguised attempts to intimidate, confuse, boast or secretly persuade.
  • Pick the right time. The right question at the wrong stage can have bad results. For instance, when talking about a new project, you will eventually need to ask how much it will cost, how long it will take, and how difficult it will be. But when asked too early in a process, “how” questions like that can turn into roadblocks to change. Many times, it’s better to explore possibilities that uncover problems.
  • Ask permission to ask. This is particularly true with clients, but applies to most people. Who likes an unexpected interrogation? On the other hand, everyone loves to talk about themselves and their problems — provided the questions are coming from a place of genuine concern and curiosity.
  • Use questions that open up possibilities. According to Kless, a great question confronts people with their ability to create a new future; even if they choose not to answer it, it has still opened up a door they can’t close.
  • Encourage questions, and allow unpopular answers. Too many people stop asking at certain points in their lives and their careers, or worse, feel that asking questions reveals ignorance. On the flip side, if your employees or clients feel they can’t answer a question honestly, it makes a mockery of asking in the first place

Naturally, not all questions require this degree of thought — sometimes you’re just pursuing a simple piece of information, like a client’s 2015 income, or what time lunch starts. But it’s important for accountants and CPAs to think more about the kinds of questions they ask, not least, as Kless pointed out, because they’re so used to giving answers. Being your clients’ most trusted advisor means you love answering questions and solving problems — even if they’re not worth answering or solving. Sometimes it’s better to pause a moment and ask a good question.
In the end, the questions you ask — of clients, of staff, of partners, and of yourself — may matter more than the answers you give.

Any questions?

Daniel Hood is the editor-in-chief of Accounting Today.

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