The best, most informative interview begins with thoughtful, insightful questions. That’s the lesson learned from former CNN White House correspondent Frank Sesno, who spent decades interviewing world leaders. Sesno, now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University, shared with Knowledge at Wharton what he’s learned in his new book, Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change. He spoke about why it’s important to learn how to ask the right questions on the Knowledge at Wharton show, part of Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about what’s been going on at the White House with all the back-and-forth with the media.
Frank Sesno: It turns out my book on asking questions and listening for answers is more timely than I had imagined. We will talk about that and the way we can all use these questions in our lives.
But I’m going to be asking some this evening. I’ve got coming to George Washington University a panel of White House correspondents and former Whites House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to talk about the role of the media and this new president — but more to the point, Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary…. Certainly with this immigration ban, a great deal of the confusion and anger probably can be tied to the way it was rolled out, the way it was communicated.
Knowledge at Wharton: What you’re talking about in this book does play into that exact point. We’ve discussed that a lot of what is going on right now seems rushed. One of the things you bring up in your book is that questions not only have to be timely, but they have to be thought through. You have to think about what you’re going to ask and what you’re trying to get from that question.
Sesno: Exactly. They have to happen on a lot of different levels. This always applies to the White House. It applies in your house. It applies in the office. That’s why I created these sort of categories of questions to help us organize our thoughts and give us tools. One, what’s the problem? How do you diagnose a problem? There’s a whole series and set of questions around that. Two, if you’re setting a strategic course, what are the risks? What are the down sides? What are the alternatives? Do you have people’s support? Three, empathy. Empathic questions. Are you really connecting with people out there to understand how they’re feeling and what you’re hearing?
To come back to the White House for a minute, it’s fair to ask, did they properly ask and answer the questions around the nature of the problem, around this immigration ban? The strategic questions that I talk about in the book I build around (former U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Colin Powell. Each chapter is built around a character. Colin Powell went to George Herbert Walker Bush before the first Gulf War with eight questions. He said, “If you can answer yes to these eight questions, then we’ve done our work and I think that there will be support and we should go for the ground war to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.” Those questions included, have we considered all alternatives? Do we know what success looks like?
“Confrontational questions are very important because they hold people to account — whether the White House or a business.”
Knowledge at Wharton: I think White House press secretary is one of the more amazing jobs that is probably in this country right now. Correct me if I’m wrong, but press secretaries don’t exactly have a long life in terms of staying with this job because of the pressure.
Sesno: It lasts a few years in most cases. But these are grueling, grinder jobs. They’re 24/7 jobs. I don’t know how open or how experienced Sean Spicer is going to be or how he is to reflect on this, but they are caught in sort of a three-way vise. They serve three masters who have sometimes very different pressures that they bring to bear. One, of course, is the president. They work for the president. Two, the press. They don’t work for the press but they work with the press and they have to have a relationship there. And if they’re doing a job, they’re a two-way conduit. So, they not only want to send information out from the White House, but they want to take what they hear from the press back into the White House. It’s sort of a form of intelligence because you have a sense as to what the pressures are.
The third pressure point — this is the one that really matters the most and is talked about the least — is the public. Ultimately, the press secretary, like the press, should serve the public. That’s why the information that’s coming out of there from anybody needs to be accurate, fair and credible.
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the areas that you bring up in your book is confrontational questions. You bring up CNN’s Anderson Cooper as one of your examples.
Sesno: Confrontational questions are very important because they hold people to account. Whether that’s the White House or with a business or with a boss or a subordinate, they really do matter. I spent a lot of time with Anderson for the book on this, and he said, “I actually hate confrontational questions. But I’ve discovered that these may be among the most important.” This is the whole notion of holding power to account.
The problem with confrontational and accountability questions is they are often asked for the record. You’re seldom going to have the Perry Mason moment where someone drops to their knees and says, “You’re right. I’m guilty as charged.” They’ll respond with defensiveness. They’ll respond with resistance. They’ll duck the question and dodge the answer. So, they need to be asked for the record.
The danger that we have, especially with this White House and this press corps, is if all we get is confrontational questions, we’re not going to get informative answers. That’s where the public could lose. We have to be very careful on both sides of the press and the White House equation as to how we calibrate that confrontational stance, which goes with the relationship. There is and should be an adversarial relationship between press and power. But it has to be moderated so that we also get answers and information.
Knowledge at Wharton: There has to be a level of respect there. If you don’t have the level of respect, then the information becomes less and less going forward.
Sesno: I refer to it as respectful adversaries. They need to be respectful adversaries. The danger, and it’s a real danger, is if they become enemies. That’s what happened in places like Venezuela and Russia. When they become enemies, we fundamentally undermine the free flow of information and the sense that the public has a right to know. I was a White House correspondent a million years ago in the Reagan and first Bush White Houses, I’ve interviewed several presidents and I’ve been in Washington for a long time. That adversarial relationship has always existed. Every president has felt that way. Thomas Jefferson hated the way he was covered because he was covered with some of his infidelities and his constant running back to Virginia. That’s just baked in. Our founding fathers wanted that. The public needs to realize that and we need to embrace it, even as we hold media to account to do it well and responsibly.
Knowledge at Wharton: But is there an element of what we see now linked to the digital society that we live in and the impact that social media and reporting through social media has had over the last few years?
Sesno: I think so. I think social media generally has coarsened our debate and the world we live with, social media or e-mails or texts. People are inundated with information. One of the reasons I wrote the book is we’ve got to slow this down. We’ve got to understand that if we are going to be engaged citizens, committed partners, communicative partners, if we’re going to be effective and imaginative and innovative in our places of work, we’ve got to ask really good questions and we’ve got to slow down long enough to really listen to the response so we can ask more questions. That’s how you get to the core of accountability or creativity or whatever it’s going to be.
Knowledge at Wharton: In this day and age, where we would rather send an e-mail or text than call or walk over to the next building to talk to somebody, listening skills are really dwindling.
Sesno: The best interviewers on radio or television or anywhere else are the best listeners. The best lawyers in trial are the best listeners. The best questioners are the best listeners. One of the things I raise in the book that I got from somebody, one of these brilliant people I talked to, is actually thinking, what kind of listener am I? Am I an interrupter? Do I have to fill gaps? Does silence make me uncomfortable? Because you can really use silence to effect sometimes. Am I a data person? In other words, I’m listening for numbers and trends and data points? Or am I somebody who listens in and keys into stories about people?
Knowing what kind of listener you are and really being mindful of that allows you to lay that over whatever you’re trying to do and whatever you’re after in terms of information, revelation or what have you, and the kinds of questions both you ask and what you respond to.
For example, if you’re asking in a confrontational context in a courtroom or in an interview, what you’re listening for is hesitation, inaccuracy, hypocrisy. I cite Terry Gross from Fresh Air. She’s a tremendous interviewer and likes interviewing artists and others. You think about this in the workplace, like a job interview, and you’re trying to really figure out what makes someone tick, where does their creativity come from, you’re listening for altogether different things. You’re listening for what she calls the essence of a person.
Knowledge at Wharton: Going back to Anderson Cooper, you said he doesn’t like confrontational questions. Is that a personal trait of his? And is that a factor in this process? Because if it’s not in you to be confrontational and ask the tough question, it becomes very hard to be successful at it.
Sesno: It can be a learned skill. I think he discovered that after he had his most famously controversial or confrontational interview with [former Democratic Senator] Mary Landrieu from Louisiana in the midst of the Hurricane Katrina mess, where he’s watching bodies floating down the street. He’s interviewing her live on the air and she goes into this, “I want to thank this person, I want to thank that person, I want to thank the president.” And he says, Senator Landrieu I have to interrupt you here. Do you get why America’s angry at this crisis that’s gone on for so many days?”
“The danger that we have, especially with this White House and this press corps, is if all we get is confrontational questions, we’re not going to get informative answers.”
I understand this. I feel the same way. I don’t like confronting people. I would much prefer to sing “Kumbaya” all the time. But if I’m on the air or tonight on stage, and I’ll do it respectfully, I’m going to talk to Sean respectfully, I want to draw him out. But he has a job he’s paid for by the American people, as is the President, the mayor, the governor, whatever…. They are accountable for their actions. Even when we’re confronting a kid, one of our children, we do it with purpose. Not because we love it but because we’re trying to set the record straight and define, through our questions and their answers, the boundaries of accountability and acceptable behavior.
Knowledge at Wharton: You talk also in this book about creativity questions and the importance that they have in this process because of the type of society we have right now.
Sesno: I love these questions. These are my favorite in many ways. I cite a couple of guys who sat around and mused this question, what would it be like to drive around like a millionaire? Later, they came around with an idea for Uber. The idea is if we can bring you transportation that’s reliable, you don’t have to pay [at the moment you receive it] for it. You feel like a million bucks. Can we make that work? A couple guys by the name of Ben and Jerry did something similar with their very creative question.
Knowledge at Wharton: Or Marc Zuckerberg coming up with Facebook.
Sesno: Right. A great brainstorming session in any business requires people to get to the place I call the imagined reality. You do this with a question. You say, “It’s five years from now. What do we look like? Here’s an imagined scenario, who would you call? If I gave you an unlimited budget, what would you do with it? If I cut your budget, what would you cut first? Then I’ll give you the money back, so where would you add to it?” Creating these sort of games, this imagined reality, gives people permission to think and leapfrog ahead.
The best one I did was many years ago. I was on a college board, my alma mater, Middlebury College. We were sitting around trying to come up with our future and had a facilitator who said, “OK, it’s five, 10 years from now and this school is at the top of the charts. What are you doing?” He took a future moment and scenario and put it in the present tense. It allowed everybody to dream big because they didn’t have to worry about where the money was going to be raised or how long it was going to take to build the building. They just projected themselves into the future. That’s what these questions can do. People talk about think outside the box. They’ll allow you to just burn the box, just go to a different place. You can’t always do it, but you get to that place, you articulate your goal and then work backwards to figure out whether and how you can get there.
Knowledge at Wharton: Another category is bridging questions. Going back to what we’re seeing coming out of the White House right now, I would think that bridging questions may end up being an important component going forward in dealing with this administration.
Sesno: I hope that what I’ve done in this book is to tell stories that can be applied in different places. You’re absolutely right. We’re seeing this in our national life now, but we can see it in so many different walks of our lives, whether it’s the office or the home. Bridging questions are questions that are meant to create a rapport, bridge a divide with someone who is suspicious or hostile or reluctant.
“Bridging questions are questions that are meant to create a rapport, bridge a divide with someone who is suspicious or hostile or reluctant.”
You go to your therapist because you want your therapist to help you. I come on your radio show because you’ve invited me and I want to talk to you. But there are lots of people who don’t want to engage in dialogue, who don’t want to open up, who don’t want to do that. How do we use questions to reach out to them and build that bridge? The answer is carefully, slowly, recognizing that they are hostile or wary, and we try to create small questions to bridge the divide in small ways, a step at a time.
A character for this is a guy who advises and consults in what’s called dangers’ threat assessment. He was the group therapist for John Hinckley, the man who shot Ronald Reagan. His whole thing is about how we put people as puzzles together to make sense and bridge these divides, to just get people to open up even if they’re hostile or suspicious.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think about the press and questions that are based on unsubstantiated information or information that has not been vetted or proven, which causes conflict with the press secretary?
Sesno: I asked a lot of people, if not all the people I interviewed for my book, “What is your favorite question?” The answers were fascinating. My favorite question is, “How do you know?” That question is applied to the media in the reporting they do, in the sources they’re talking to. It should be asked of the media when they are on the line and are using anonymous sources. And it should be asked of our public officials. If an assertion is made from the White House or a podium, how do you know?
We can not have a real conversation about anything without knowing. And my first chapter is diagnostic questions because it’s what I call the ground floor of questioning, figuring out what’s wrong. Critical in that is knowing what we know and knowing what we don’t know and knowing where our sources come from so that we can trust them. You’re not going to go to your doctor and say, “Yes doctor, do open heart surgery here,” without making sure the doctor has actually been looking at the right records, the right patient, the right tests. We want to be absolutely sure that those sources are unimpeachable and that the information they’re working from is as good as it can be. That should be applied across the board in our national discourse.
Knowledge at Wharton: Does it concern you that in journalism we’ve gotten into this, “I’ve got to get it out there first” mentality in some cases. That has impacted the asking of questions just like that.
Sesno: Yes, we should be very concerned. People in the media should be very concerned about the low esteem in which they are held. Take that apart and figure out why and address our critics directly. Not in rebuttal, but in explanation. The media owe the public an explanation as to how they work. So yes, I think that’s a very serious question. And media should be asking the