You’ve got a problem and you need to fix it. Where do you start?

With questions, of course!

In essence, you have a conversation with yourself, your staff or your team, focusing on the problem that needs fixing.

Your questions will work better if you ask the right kind of questions and in the right order. You need to bring all the information into focus, trying to decide what action to take or which change will move you toward a solution of your problem.

Do that by dividing the information into categories and examining each category of information thoroughly before moving on to the next one. In this method, there are four types of questions to ask: objective, reflective, interpretive and decisional (and in that order).

Objective is simply the facts, the data. What does the situation look like right now? What do I know? What is happening? What data stands out for me? What are the details that I take for granted?

This step is the gathering of objective information. There is no pressure to come up with a solution or figure out how to fix the problem. In fact, you make a point not to do so.

Ensure you take the time to fully define the situation before moving on. With a group, this step is essential. It ensures everyone in the group is working with the same information and trying to fix the same problem.

The second step is to ask reflective questions? Look at the data and find out how you feel about it. We are talking emotions here. Are any memories triggered by a particular piece of data? Which bit did you feel good about? What part had you frustrated, angry or struggling?

This isn’t just likes and dislikes; we are tapping into the worlds of intuition, memory, emotion and imagination.

Third, the interpretive step, you try to make sense out of what you have come up with in the previous two steps. You put them together and explore the meaning behind, or surrounding, the data. What really is happening here? What does this mean for my business? How does this affect my work? What can I learn?

You consider alternatives and options and examine the significance of the situation. This is the place for higher-order thinking.

The final set of questions is decisional and designed to lead you to action. What should I do? What are the steps I need to take and in which order? How do I apply what I have just learned to change and improve? What new direction do I need to take to move toward a solution of the problem?

This method of structuring thoughts and questions is particularly helpful when you are working with a group. Each step serves a different purpose.

The first ensures the situation is clearly understood and creates common understanding.

The second, often neglected, takes into account the human aspect. People are driven by emotions. You are, your staff is, your customers are.

The third allows us to go deeper, ensuring our solution is well thought out and comprehensive.

The fourth, if neglected, leads to action that is disconnected from the reason it is being taken and in workers who are unfocused or unengaged.

A simple process that leads to better decisions – now, what was your problem?

This method of coming to decisions and solving problems is presented thoroughly in the book The Art of Focused Conversation – 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace, edited by the Institute of Cultural Affairs by R. Brian Stanfield and published by New Society Publishers.