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<xTITLE>The Last Question</xTITLE>

The Last Question

by Maria Simpson
April 2022

From Maria Simpson's Two-Minute Trainings listserv

Maria Simpson

I do a lot of interviewing, whether that’s at the beginning of a coaching relationship or during the interview process of a team project to collect background information, concerns, and opinions. 
 
Very often I use an interview protocol so that I’m sure to ask the same questions of everyone, and to be sure that the questions are not asked in a way that biases the response. By writing the questions out and using a separate sheet for each interview, I’m sure the language is neutral and I haven’t connected an answer to the wrong person. The differences in answers provide insight into each person’s perceptions of the process and willingness to participate, as well as their information.
 
The protocol works well when interviewing members of a single group, but interviewing individuals without a group context often involves a more free-flowing conversation. I might have a few general ideas of what I want to learn and what’s important, but no specific plan for questions. They need to grow out of the developing relationship and the needs of both the speaker to make a statement and the listener to gain information.
 
No matter how the conversation starts though, I always end the same way with the same question. Although it may take different forms, it’s the equivalent of the “Comments?” question on a questionnaire:
 
            What question did I not ask that you wanted to answer?
            Was there anything you wanted to discuss that I didn’t ask about?
            What question should I have included that I missed?
 
The first two of these questions are personal; they contain the pronoun “you.” Sometimes, though, people don’t want to express an opinion or provide information on a specific topic because they don’t want to be personally associated with that opinion. 
 
The third example asks about the questions rather than the speaker. The speaker can provide the same information but not be associated with the topic or the opinion, the “Some people think . . .” or “I’ve heard that . . .” response. Often the responses will open up whole avenues of discussion that I had no idea existed and provide the underlying truth of a disagreement or difficult situation.
 
I try to use this question even when it’s not a workplace situation. Several years ago I was buying a used car, and when I’d finished asking the salesperson about the car, I asked, “What other questions would you ask if you were in my place?” He thought for a minute and then said he’d ask to see the CarFax report. I’d never thought of that, and that’s why I ask that question; I want to know what I’d never thought of. And if the response is that there is nothing to add, then I have other information that’s equally valuable: I’ve covered the important bases.
 
I never want to worry that someone left an interview thinking“I wish she had asked about . . . I wanted to tell her. . .” And I never want someone to wonder if I was really interested because I didn’t think to ask about the one thing that was most important to that person.
 
And I absolutely never want to be told that I missed an important piece of information because “you never asked.”
 
If you ever find yourself wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” then you know you should have asked that last question: “What should I have asked that I didn’t?” After all, we can’t think of everything to ask every time, but we can be more confident that we didn't miss something if we ask about it.
 
Stay well. Stay safe. Have a peaceful week. 

Biography


Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation.

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