Leadership Perspectives

How to ask good questions

June 19, 2012

Question MarkA few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of empathy.  One of the best ways to demonstrate empathy is to ask questions and really listen to the answers.

In addition to showing empathy, asking the right questions and having an open mind to hearing the answers helps leaders avoid myopia by exposing them to different knowledge sets and points of view. The right questions help leaders uncover the information that they need in order to make important decisions and helps leaders with new responsibilities and challenges understand the historical and cultural contexts they face.

Many leaders underestimate the value of asking questions.   Or, instead of skillfully asking good questions, they ask questions that intimidate others or only serve them back their own point of view.

Good questions:

  • Are powerful questions.
  • Are real questions (rather than thinly veiled opinions.)
  • May be preceded by the asker’s viewpoint IF the question is clearly separate from the viewpoint.
  • Require suspending judgment.
  • Are curious and open. Seek new information or points of view.
  • May start with “What” or “How.”

Ask powerful questions.  Open ended questions that are simple, but don’t allow for unadorned yes/no answers, are most often the most powerful questions for provoking insight and thought.

The simplest questions sometimes do the trick.  Don’t ask convoluted or complicated questions that force people to sort out what you are asking before they attempt to answer.

Here’s some great examples of powerful questions:

  • “How did we get here?”
  • “What do you think about …?”
  • “What have you tried so far?”
  • “What is important to you?”
  • “What’s the opportunity?”
  • “What are the challenges?”
  • “How can you improve the situation?”
  • “How is it working?”

Ask real questions.  A good question is a real question, not an opinion in the guise of a question.  “How will you encourage acceptance of the plan?” sounds like it might be a real question.  “Don’t you think that plan will be doomed from the start?” sounds to me more like an opinion.

The first question is likely to provoke ideas and discussion.  The latter question is likely to only elicit defensiveness. (Hint: A negative contraction at the beginning of a question is a sure sign that it is followed, not by a real question, but by an opinion.)

Acknowledge your opinion first, if necessary.  Sometimes it would be disingenuous to try to hide the fact that you are asking a question to confirm or refute an opinion that you hold.  In such cases, go ahead and state your opinion first.  Just be sure to follow your opinion statement with a real question and to be open to the answer.

For example:  “I have a concern that we may be moving too fast and that quality will suffer while people are getting up to speed.  What are your thoughts on how to ensure that the staff is ready at implementation time?”

Suspend Judgment.  Too often we ask questions thinking that we already know the answer.  I’ve noticed in coaching, when I let go of the answers that I think I know, I am frequently surprised and enlightened by the answers that I hear.

If a client senses that I am looking for a particular answer, it seems to stymie their creativity and their authenticity as they search for the ‘right’ answer that they think I want.  It is so much more productive to create an environment conducive to their reaching deep inside themselves to give me the answer that is true for them.

Become known for your ability to suspend judgment and you will find people willing to speak their truth.  Even if you then choose not to agree, you will be better off for knowing where others are coming from.

Be curious.  Of course, a lot of how your question is received depends on the tone you use to ask the question.  Almost any question can sound like a judgment when asked with the wrong tone of voice.  The key is to ask your questions with a spirit of genuine curiosity and the intention to learn.  If the curiosity is genuine, it will come through.

Start with “what” or “how.”  This is certainly not a hard and fast rule, but notice how many of the examples of really good questions start with what or how.  What and how questions provoke more thoughtful, detailed responses.

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