Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change

Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change


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What hidden skill links successful people in all walks of life—across cultures, industries, generations . . . all of time? The answer is surprisingly simple: they know how to ask the right questions at the right time. Questions help us break down barriers, discover secrets, solve puzzles, and imagine new ways of doing things. The right question can provide for us not only the answer we need right then but also the ones we’ll need tomorrow. Emmy award–winning journalist and media expert Frank Sesno wants to teach you how to question others in a methodical, intentional way so that you can find the same success that others have found by mastering this simple skill. From the author’s illuminating interviews that he has included in the book, you will learn:• How the Gates Foundation used strategic questions to plan its battle against malaria• How turnaround expert Steve Miller uses diagnostic questions to get to the heart of a company's problems• How creative questions animated a couple of techie dreamers to brainstorm Uber • How journalist Anderson Cooper uses confrontational questions to hold people accountableThroughout Ask More, you’ll explore all different types of inquiries—from questions that cement relationships, to those that will help you plan for the future. By the end, you’ll know what to ask and when, what you should listen for, and what you can expect as the outcome.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814436714
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 01/10/2017
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 179,041
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

FRANK SESNO is a former CNN anchor, White House correspondent, and Washington bureau chief, and is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. He has interviewed dozens of world leaders, including five U.S. presidents, and is the creator of Planet Forward, an innovative forum seeking solutions to some of the world's toughest challenges.

Read an Excerpt

Ask More

The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change

By Frank Sesno


Copyright © 2017 Frank Sesno
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8144-3672-1



Smart questions make smarter people. We learn, connect, observe, and invent through the questions we ask. We push boundaries and we discover secrets. We solve mysteries and we imagine new ways of doing things. We ponder our purpose and we set our sights. We hold people accountable. We live generously, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, by asking not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them. Curiosity opens our minds and captivates our imaginations.

But the fact is, most of us don't really understand how questions work — or how to make them work for us. In school we study math and science, literature and history. At work we learn about outcomes and metrics, profit and loss. But never do we study how to ask questions strategically, how to listen actively, or how to use questions as a powerful tool toward accomplishing what we really want to achieve.

Questions — asked the right way, under the right circumstances — can help you achieve both short-term and lifelong goals. They can open doors to discovery and success, bring you closer to a loved one, and even uncover answers to the universe's most enduring mysteries. Insightful questions help you connect with a stranger, impress a job interviewer, or entertain at your next dinner party, and they can be the keys to a happier, more productive, and fulfilling life.

This book shows you what you get when you ask for it. In each chapter I explore a different type of question, driven by its own approach and listening skills. By the end of the book, you'll be able to recognize what to ask and when, what you should listen for, and what you can expect as the outcome. Each chapter offers stories and looks at the genre through remarkable people who have used questions to motivate and excel.

For nearly four decades it's been my job to ask questions. From an inner-city school to a technology revolution, from the Brandenburg Gate where a president said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" to the inauguration of the first African-American president, I have had the privilege of being there — watching, listening, and asking. I've interviewed world leaders who shaped history and heroes who dedicated themselves to the poor and the disabled. I've questioned avowed racists and the richest man in the world. As a journalist and interviewer, I have been enriched by these experiences and privileged to share them publicly — on CNN, NPR, and other media, and in front of live audiences. Now I teach college students how to ask to get information, to find the facts, to hold the powerful to account, and to create revealing moments for the world to see.

As my fascination with inquiry has grown, I've become increasingly alarmed about the questions we ask — or don't ask — in public and daily life. Technology has revealed endless horizons, but it has also created a quick-hit, search-engine culture where a fast answer can obscure deeper inquiry. The polarization of politics, amplified by social media, has fractured civic discourse and infused it with invective instead of dialogue. The news media, reflecting and reinforcing these trends, have grown shorter and sharper. Compared to when I got into the business, television interviewers are given less time and focus more on controversy and horse race than on explanation and substance. Sincere questions too often play second fiddle to certainty, ideology, and outrage. But what if we asked more and asserted less? What would we discover? How much better would we understand the people around us? What if we went asking for solutions and posed truly creative questions that could change the world?

A student convinced me I should write this book.

Simone (I've changed her name) had arranged to interview her father — I'll call him Morley — for an assignment I had given my Art of the Interview class. A devoted family man, Morley kept his emotions to himself and was not prone to reflection. At first he refused. "Go find someone else," he told his daughter. But Simone persisted, and finally her father agreed to the interview, camera and all.

Simone had questions she always wanted to ask. Morley had issues he never wanted to discuss. They sat facing each other in the den, a place both of them knew well. Simone started with some innocuous open-ended questions, a classic interviewing technique. She asked about her father's college days and how he met his wife, Simone's mother. When Morley seemed more relaxed, Simone asked the question she'd been thinking about for a long time.

"Before I was born a child passed away," she said. "Can you tell me what happened?" For more than twenty years, the family had faithfully commemorated the child's birthday, but they had never really talked about what happened.

"She was born premature," Morley said. "She lived for about a day and a half. Her lungs hadn't fully formed. That created a series of other problems." He paused. Then came the secret he'd never told anyone, not even his own parents.

"Your mom and I decided that we would disconnect her from life support." His voice trailed off. He swallowed hard, trying to stay in control.

Simone kept going. "Was it a difficult decision? How did you and mom handle that?" Her father teared up. So did she.

Morley's words came slowly. "At the time it was very hard ... It was probably hardest to see some of our friends with kids at that time." Another pause. "But those experiences shape you." He looked at his daughter. He saw a beautiful and smart young woman — his legacy and his love. Still emotional, Morley told her she wouldn't be alive if that terrible event had not occurred.

Simone's head was spinning. To learn the details was difficult enough, but to see her strong, unshakable father so upset revealed a vulnerability she had never seen.

"I understand now, after what he had been through, why I meant so much to him," she told me later. "I understand why he has always made such an effort to spend time with me, to be there for important events in my life, to tell me how proud he is of me. Now when he gives me a hug I don't pull away as quickly. When I miss his call I make sure to try him back right away."

Simone uncovered a deep secret, discovered a different side of her dad, and changed the way she related to her father simply because she asked. More, much more, than an oral history came from her questions.

And so I began to explore the power of questions in their different forms.

I talked to dozens of people, master questioners if you will, to understand how they used questions in their lives and professions and to see what we could learn from them. The inquiry teachers in this book comprise some of the most fascinating and successful people I've met, some famous and some not so famous. The arc of their lives has been assisted by their ability to question the people and the world around them.

The book begins with a problem. If you've ever confronted something that's gone wrong, with time running out, you know that asking the right questions can make the difference between a good call and a catastrophic mistake. Chapter 2 introduces you to people who diagnose problems for a living: a nurse-practitioner in Appalachia, a renowned corporate turnaround artist, and my neighbor, the roofer. They're all experts at asking questions to pinpoint a problem so they can fix it. You'll see how you can zero in, listen hard, and draw on experience and instinct.

Chapter 3, "The General's Charge," shows you how to stand back and think big when the stakes are high and the outcome is unclear. Strategic questions ask about choices, risks, and consequences. They force you to challenge conventional wisdom and your own biases. They lead to better, clearer thinking and better planning when you're weighing big decisions. As General Colin Powell explained to me, great strategic questions can inform the hardest decisions, just as failing to ask the right questions can lead to disaster.

If you want to connect with someone, you will see how the experts do it as you read Chapter 4, "From the Inside Out." Empathetic questions can bring you closer to people you know or have just met. These questions help you become a better friend, colleague, partner, or family member. They lead to deeper understanding and discovery. You'll hear from a family therapist, a Harvard professor who teaches empathy, and from one of the best interviewers in America, NPR's Terry Gross.

Want to know a secret, maybe a dangerous one? In Chapter 5 you'll learn how careful, patient questioning can build a bridge to someone who doesn't want to talk to you. These bridging questions reach out to people who are wary, distrustful, and even hostile. You'll see how an expert in Dangerous Threat Assessment uses them to solve difficult, and sometimes volatile, human puzzles. He asks questions without question marks. Understanding how this is done will help you communicate, if not with terrorists, then at least with teenagers.

And if no bridge can be built? Chapter 6 will show you how you can use confrontational questions to hold people accountable for what they've done or said. While this kind of inquiry is often unpleasant, as I once discovered in a bizarre encounter, it does establish a record. Know what you're after, as Anderson Cooper explains. Be prepared for the consequences, as Jorge Ramos recounts. But as you will see, if you have the courage of your convictions, know what you're talking about, and can ask with precision, you can be a more formidable adversary.

How many times have you heard that you should think outside the box, be original, and take a chance? In Chapter 7 you'll realize you can get there through questions, not commands. If you want to get creative juices really flowing, ask people to imagine, to set their sights high, to pretend gravity doesn't exist. What do California Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Hollywood television series creator Ed Bernero have in common? They both use questions to transport people to a place where they cannot fail.

In Chapter 8, "The Solvable Problem," you'll see how you can create a sense of purpose and mission through your questions and inspire people to pitch in, or maybe even write a check. You'll meet Karen Osborne, who has raised millions of dollars, and Rick Leach, who wants to feed the world. You can borrow from their approach to become your own pied piper. You'll discover surprising ways to improve listening, set common goals, and take concrete action.

Chapter 9 ventures into the unknown and the unexplained to see how scientific questions can solve the mysteries of the world. You will meet the doctor-researcher who threw himself at HIV/AIDS and Ebola when people were dying and the public was in panic. You'll also find inspiration and ideas you can apply in your own life.

Next come the money questions. You're trying to fill a job. You want the job. What you ask tests your compatibility and, just maybe, predicts the future. Chapter 10 shows you how these questions get asked — from both sides. You'll meet a CEO who goes for the team approach and a technology veteran who just might ask about your favorite aisle in the supermarket.

Entertaining questions can turn your boring dinner into a theater of wit and ideas and provocative conversation. Be your own talk show host. In Chapter 11, you'll learn ways to draw out memorable dialogue and keep the conversation moving, using ideas from one of the most engaging and curious people I've ever met. Invite Socrates to supper — if you dare. Serve this recipe at your next meal and you'll have everyone talking.

Finally, what does it all mean? Chapter 12 asks legacy questions that reveal your life story and craft an uplifting narrative of accomplishment and gratitude. These questions from the edge will help you step back and take stock of what you have done and the people you have known. Here, you meet the rabbi who gets asked about God's intentions and read the curious words of a twenty-five-year-old who questions her future. I introduce you to one of the bravest people I've ever met.

At the back of the book, I provide a guide that summarizes the question categories and their component parts, with a few ideas you can try to become a more effective questioner.

This book is not prescriptive. It doesn't tell you how to ask in every situation. But it does offer examples that demonstrate the power of questions and the benefits of deep, nuanced listening. The categories reflect a range of curiosity. As you will see, each enlists different asking skills in search of distinct outcomes. Humans are built to be curious, that much is in our DNA. This book illustrates how some of the most successful people have honed their curiosity and developed an ability to ask and to listen that has served them extraordinarily well.

Our questions reflect who we are, where we go, and how we connect. They help us learn and they help us lead because effective questioning marshals support and enlists others to join. After all, asking people to solve a problem or come up with a new idea turns the responsibility over to them. It says, "You're smart, you're valuable, you know what you're doing — what would you do about this problem?"

My aim in writing this book is to show you the power of questions and how it can be applied effectively and freely. Enjoy and learn from the exceptional questioners you meet here.

And then, ask more.



Diagnostic Questions

There are days reporters dread, but they come with the territory. A rumor, a phone call, and then a pit in your stomach, no matter how seasoned you are. A passenger jet has disappeared. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the crew. The plane vanished from radar screens. Airline and aviation authorities are racing to figure out what's gone wrong. So are we.

In the newsroom, we are scrambling, preparing to go on the air with the story. What exactly will we say? What do we know? Where will definitive information come from? And when? We deploy reporters. We're all over the FAA and the FBI and the airline. We're using new flight-tracking apps. We're working sources, contacting anyone who might have heard anything. We brace ourselves for the most perilous time in live TV — that period after something happens but before anyone in authority can confirm what actually happened. If we get it wrong, we spread misinformation, scare innocent people, and may even affect the actions of first responders. We tarnish our credibility and outrage our viewers.

A lot of our work will unfold in real time, right in front of the audience as we ask the questions that track what's going on and what went wrong.

What airline and flight number?

How many were on board?

When and where did it disappear?

These are the first harried questions we ask in those early, frenzied moments — the who, what, when, and where questions of a breaking story.

Was there mechanical trouble?

Was anyone on a watch list?

What did witnesses see?

We need to know what happened and what went wrong. Until those questions are answered, the rest of the story will remain a mystery.

What's the Problem?

Fortunately, most planes land safely, and life does not unfold in a TV newsroom. But our need to identify problems so we can act on them is an ingredient of daily existence. The reporter's rapid instinct, like the clinician's expertise in connecting symptoms to illness, is a skill you can develop and incorporate into your questioning to become better, faster, and more precise when you have to diagnose a problem. Whether it's a life-threatening condition or a leak in the basement, a pain in the shoulder or an issue at work, you have to figure out what the problem is before you can do anything about it. You have to ask the right questions, accept bad news, and roll with the unexpected to get the answers you need in a timely fashion.

Since human beings first stepped out of our caves, we realized that if we were to survive, we had to identify peril and then avoid or overcome it. That still holds true, although these days, with Wi-Fi in our caves, we often call the experts. Still, we can hone our skills so that our diagnostic questioning is sharper. We can be better questioners of the doctor or the mechanic or the boss when they think they have the answers to our problems. We can challenge our political leaders when they speak with certainty about a simple problem and an easy solution.

Diagnostic questioning is the ground floor of inquiry. It is the foundation on which other questions are built. It pinpoints a problem and provides a roadmap for a response.

What's wrong?

How do we know?

What are we not seeing?

What should we do?

Diagnostic questioning identifies a problem then burrows down to its roots, especially when those roots are not instantly obvious.


Excerpted from Ask More by Frank Sesno. Copyright © 2017 Frank Sesno. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword xvii

Chapter 1 Why Ask? 1

Chapter 2 Something's Not Right: Diagnostic Questions 9

What's the Problem? 10

"Miss Nosy" 12

The Mystery Patient 14

Bad News Is Good News 16

History Is News, Too 19

Challenge the Expert 21

After the Diagnosis, the Strategy 24

Chapter 3 The General's Charge: Strategic Questions 27

Set Your Sights 28

A Strategic Approach 30

A General's Command 32

Eight Yeses 35

Failure Is an Option 37

Getting Personal 40

Challenge Yourself 41

Chapter 4 From the inside Out: Empathy Questions 43

The Good Professor 46

The Empathetic Interviewer 48

Therapeutic Inquiry 56

License and Limits 60

Chapter 5 The Gentle interrogator: Bridging Questions 63

Get Them Talking 65

Solving Puzzles 68

Affirm and Acknowledge 72

Questions Without Question Marks 72

Echo Questions 74

Build the Bridge 76

Chapter 6 For the Record: Confrontational Questions 77

Care to Listen 79

Unintended Consequences 82

Demanding Answers 85

Confronting Power 88

An Audience Helps 89

No Way Out 91

Blunt Force 94

Chapter 7 Imagine This: Creativity Questions 97

Beyond the Possible 99

Travel in Time 101

Cutting Strings 102

Imagined Reality 106

Ask for Subversion 110

Chapter 8 The Solvable Problem: Mission Questions 115

Listening for Common Goals 116

The Value Proposition 118

Change the World 122

Sharing Works 124

What Brings You Here? 126

Asking to Listen 128

Solve Problems with Purpose 130

Chapter 9 Into the Unknown: Scientific Questions 133

The Doctor's Quest 135

A Mystery Killer 137

Cultures Clash 139

Test but Verify 141

Stretch Yourself 143

Slow Answers to Slow Questions 145

Chapter 10 The Edison Test: Interview Questions 149

Hunting the Best Heads 153

Look Back, Look Ahead 154

Finding Innovation 156

Be Ready for the Curveball 158

The Candid Candidate 160

Asking for the Team 163

Interview the Interviewer 164

Bright Ideas 167

Chapter 11 The Inspired Host: Entertaining Questions 169

Sec the Stage, Set the Tone 172

You're On! 177

Supper with Socrates 179

Asking for Laughs 180

A Host of Questions 181

Chaper 12 Lessons for Life: Legacy Questions 183

Seeking Context 184

Why Didn't I Ask? 185

The Rabbi 186

Facing Failure 190

In Search of Meaning 192

Asking for Life 194

Chapter 13 I'm Glad I Asked 197

The Justice of Citizenship 199

Ask to Lead 201

Poems of Humanity 202

Always Asking 203

Profane and Profound 207

Question Guide 211

Diagnostic Questions 213

Strategic Questions 216

Empathy Questions 219

Bridging Questions 221

Confrontational Questions 224

Creativity Questions 227

Mission Questions 229

Scientific Questions 231

Legacy Questions 239

Index 241

About the Author 251

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