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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.


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.

Your tooth is killing you. You go to the dentist. She asks where it hurts, when it hurts. When you chew? When you drink? She taps, pokes, and applies cold water till you leap out of the chair. Oh sorry, did that hurt? Yes, you grunt, through the junkyard that litters your palate. She says the problem is this other tooth.
You're feeling "referred pain." An X-ray confirms it. A filling fixes it.

Your company recently introduced a new product. It isn't selling. Everyone thinks it's a flop. You're not so sure, so you hire some consultants to figure out what's going on. They conduct focus groups. They ask lots of questions about this product and similar ones. They discover that people actually like it and several of them say they'd buy it—if they knew about it. Turns out the marketing was the problem.

Diagnostic questions, whether they are directed at a company or a cavity, progress systematically to describe the problem and identify it.

Connect symptoms and specifics. Start with big, broad, what's-the-problem questions and then narrow down, zero in. Get past the generic to identify the symptoms and describe related observations in detail.

Ask for the bad. Don't duck the issues or avert your eyes. Ask direct questions in search of direct answers. It may get ugly, but if you want to fix a problem, you have to acknowledge it to deal with it.

Study history. Look back. Ask about similar experiences, events, and patterns. They provide a baseline. Look for similarities to other situations.

Ask again. The mere existence of a problem means there is something unknown or unanticipated. To be sure you're on solid ground, ask several times and several sources. Confirm and corroborate.

Challenge the expert. We rely on experts to diagnose our disease. But that doesn't mean they're right or that they're off the hook in explaining what's going on. Before you accept a diagnosis, ask what it is, what it means, and where it's coming from. And reserve the right to get another opinion.


1: Why Ask?
2: Something's Not Right: Diagnostic Questions
3: The General's Charge: Strategic Questions
4: From the Inside Out: Empathy Questions
5: The Gentle Interrogator: Bridging Questions
6: For the Record: Confrontational Questions
7: Imagine This: Creativity Questions

8: The Solvable Problem: Mission Questions
9: Into the Unknown: Scientific Questions
10: The Edison Test: Interview Questions
11: The Inspired Host: Entertaining Questions
12: Lessons for Life: Legacy Questions
13: I'm Glad I Asked

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