Probe Alternative Causal Explanations

How can you contribute value to someone who knows more than you about the topic at hand, someone who’s the “insider” when you’re the “outsider”? Though there are a million life examples, this is notably a challenge all board directors face when interacting with their CEO who’s closer to the details.

Ask good questions.

But asking good questions is very hard. So here’s one type of question that almost always helpfully provokes: a probe on alternative causal explanations.

The CEO says: “We didn’t close the deal because our competitor undercut us on price.”

Question: “Are you sure it was price and not a poor sales presentation or the product lacking necessary functionality?”

The best advice (or should I say, the kind of advice most listened to / followed) is often given in a form of a question, and the best questions often make the person re-consider assumptions.

Bottom Line: People — especially entrepreneurs — can be quick to jump to clear cut causal explanations for events. An easy way to be helpful when asking questions is to probe on alternative explanations for why something happened.

4 Responses to Probe Alternative Causal Explanations

  1. P says:

    But you run the risk of a response of “That is a good question” and “Next question”

  2. Ashe says:

    I struggle with this situation in my current (new management) role. This is great advice.

  3. Dan Erwin says:

    Ben: Giving people options within your questions is sometimes effective. Another way, is to set up your question with: Can we talk about this? How did you come to your conclusion? (What are the possible facts?) Walk me through your thinking. What do you see as other possible reasons for that deal.

    Questioning is a terrifically difficult skill to learn. I spend a lot of coaching sessions on just that one subject. It’s especially difficult for people to identify assumptions or mental models and know how to challenge them with questions.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    Agreed but you don’t have to let them get away with ‘That’s a good
    question’. :)

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