How to ask the right questions in a meeting

Meetings are a major part of most businesses. According to Verizon Business, Americans attend an average of 61 meetings every month. Only about half of in-person meetings take place on-site. Others happen outside the office both in local meeting places and distant destinations. Coworking spaces are well-equipped for these tendencies, as you’ll find in a quick tour of WeWork offices, aptly equipped with conference rooms that are carefully outfitted for productivity.

Though employees regularly attend these meetings, they don’t always know the best way to participate in them. Knowing what to question is crucial if you want to prove your place as an active and integral part of the workforce. There are several key areas that beg for a little questioning. If you’re struggling to ask the right questions, try these tips in your next meeting.

Clarify the purpose of the meeting

A meeting analysis performed by professors from The University of Tulsa and University of Arizona revealed that 63 percent of meetings had no advance-written agenda. Most had just two hours of warning and wasted 11 percent of the meeting time discussing irrelevant issues. Unproductive meetings are a waste of valuable time that’s better spent working on other projects.

One of the smartest questions you can ask at a meeting is why you’re there to begin with. Understanding the goal of the meeting will better position all the participants to work toward that one joint effort. While this seemingly straightforward question may seem brash, it’s important to ask. If you don’t have an agenda in front of you or a clear purpose scrawled on the whiteboard, go ahead and ask what you’re all wondering.

  • Why are we here?
  • What’s our end goal?
  • How does this serve our mission?
  • What critical tasks are on the agenda today?
  • What do we need to accomplish by the end of this meeting?

Question the questions

Asking the right questions is often a matter of refining the questions that are already on your agenda. Are those around you focusing on the right points, or are they stuck questioning irrelevant aspects of the matter at hand? It’s easy to veer off topic during a meeting, particularly if you spend a good portion of the day sequestered in lonely cubicles.

Even a seemingly relevant question may prove to be off topic if you examine it a little closer. Catching these tricky topics will really earn you points for your keen approach to complex issues.

For example, in your product development meeting, you may end up circling the question of how to make your product more portable. However, the better question might be whether portability is critical to the customer. Perhaps you’ll improve satisfaction more with a different feature. Portability could cause you to sacrifice more important elements in the design, and prove to be a waste of effort if this isn’t a key factor for your audience.

Make sure you’re asking questions about your questions so the focus stays where you need it.

  • How does this question serve our purpose?
  • Will answering this question help us further our mission?
  • Are we questioning the right issues here?

Broaden your group

Ask who you’ve already brought into the discussion and who you might want to draw in next. Is the topic at hand relevant only to the people who are in the room with you, or might it benefit from some new insights? If you’re discussing your next marketing strategy, it’s worth consulting with sales to discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and overall performance of the marketing campaigns you’ve run in the past.

You may even want to think outside the box about helpful parties you could bring into the discussion. If you want your advertising campaign to draw customers who have abandoned your software back into the fold, talk to your customer service team and evaluate the comments they hear most. Someone in IT might offer thoughtful insights about which glitches have been the most troublesome for users, and how beneficial your new patch is.

Think about who’s involved in the meeting and who is still outside it. Ask the right questions to make sure you’re working with the best group possible.

  • Who else have we talked to about this?
  • What did sales have to say on this topic?
  • How are our customers responding to the issue?

Draw in quiet participants

Pay attention to who is and isn’t speaking in the meeting. If you’re engaged in open dialogue about an issue, make subtle notes as to who has contributed to the topic and who’s staying quiet. Drawing everyone into the discussion can yield more productive results from the meeting. If a member of the group has nothing to contribute and doesn’t seem to be taking anything meaningful from the discussion, it’s worth reconsidering the parameters of your group.

Questioning the quiet members of the group will show that you’re paying keen attention to the flow of the conversation and how others are interacting with your group. It may encourage quieter employees to enter the conversation more, and it will show upper management that you’re both active and observant.

Ask smart questions of other participants that don’t rely on a yes or no answer. These will be more effective at drawing others out and finding out what they’re really thinking.

  • Can we get your opinion?
  • How have your sales been?
  • What trends have you seen?
  • How does your experience support these assumptions?

Look to sustainability and scalability

Sustainability and scalability are key considerations for nearly every aspect of a business. Whether you’re speaking about technical advancements or production elements, you need to know if you can successfully scale your efforts and maintain them sustainably over the long-term.

If your project isn’t sustainable or scalable, you need to recognize that you’re working on a short-term fix. While this is perfectly fine in situations that call for a fast patch, you need to recognize that your efforts won’t last and need an underlying long-term solution to back them up. Examine the staying power of your current action plan.

  • How long can we remain profitable at this pace?
  • Will this strategy remain successful if the company doubles in size?
  • Can these production methods support twice the sales volume?

Look for faults

While you don’t want to mark yourself as an overwhelmingly negative member of the group, you also need to maintain a realistic outlook. If you’re struggling to figure out how to ask questions in a meeting, it may be that you’re too worried about taking the delicate or diplomatic approach to an issue. Asking the right questions doesn’t always mean revealing positive answers. It’s equally important to explore the more problematic side of your project.

Failure to identify or examine an issue early on will only result in greater difficulties down the road. If you’re searching for a way to contribute meaningfully to a topic, you may find that it’s as simple as crossing over to the opposite side of the issue to ask the tough questions.

  • What could go wrong?
  • What do we stand to lose with this plan?
  • How will we recover or compensate if this fails?

Identify the next step

By the end of a meeting, you should have a well-defined action plan for what you’ll do going forward. Never allow yourself to walk out of a meeting wondering what’s next. The purpose of your meeting should always be to better define your future actions. Whether you’re evaluating your sales efforts so you have a better understanding of how to please your customers, or you’re meeting to review the latest projects from research and development, your meeting should end with a clear call to action for the future.

If you’re nearing the end of the meeting or staring down that last call for questions, don’t hesitate to clarify what you’ve accomplished with your meeting.

  • What’s the most important thing for us to do from here?
  • What’s our timeline for revisiting this issue?
  • Who is responsible for the next steps?

With the right approach to meeting questions, you can stand out as a stellar participant in any aspect of the business. Review these strategies before the next meeting on your agenda to make sure you’re ready with insightful questions to help everyone explore the topic more successfully.

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