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More About Questions

| April 28, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, More About Questions, continues our discussion from the past two weeks.  As we’ve noted there, being able to ask good, well-formed questions is as important to a leader as being able to listen well.  Today, we’ll focus on crafting our questions, on asking questions, and finally on those terrible questions we should avoid.

Good questions create good dialog.  Mike Maddock, a contributor to Forbes’ Entrepreneurs blog says it, in a post “The Four Questions Great Leaders Ask,” this way:   “A masterful leader will sit Yoda-like in a meeting, listening intently to the dialogue and then, with Zen Master timing, ask a question that will change the tenor, the focus, and the performance of the entire team.”

Such questions are usually empowering.  Unfortunately, too often the questions we ask focus on why a person didn’t succeed.  Questions like this, often beginning with “why,” put the respondent in a defensive mode and that may significantly change their responses.  Michael Marquardt, author of Leading with Questions, points out that when you are in a defensive mode it’s hard to think about paths to success.  So, instead of asking “Why is your project not finished?” you might ask, ”How’s your project coming along?”  Believe it or not, this gives a person a much safer place to share information without feeling directly at fault.

So, what are characteristics of empowering questions? 

  1. They create clarity.  “Tell me more about what just happened.”  From the response you may get new information, a view from a different perspective, or the identity of blind spots.
  2. They build better relationships.  Instead of asking “Did you finish your project?” ask, “How is your project going?”  As a result you express interest in the work rather than putting your respondent in a defensive posture.
  3. They help people think analytically and critically.  “What do you expect will happen if we go in that direction?”
  4. They inspire people to reflect and see things with new “eyes.”  “Why did that approach work?”
  5. They encourage breakthrough thinking.  “How can we do this differently?”  If you continue to encounter the same problems, then, perhaps the questions you are asking as you work to solve the problem are not leading you to the problem’s root-cause.  Tools like the “5-Whys” (asking “why” to each response that you receive much the same as what a two or three year-old child does whenever you answer their question) can help you get beyond first-level causes.
  6. They challenge assumptions.  A common mistake many leaders make is to not ask a question because, based on assumptions they already have made, they think they know the answer.  We need to get beyond any assumptions about either the people – “that team is always late” – and the work – “the sponsor must have changed the requirements again” – to gain a real understanding of the situation.
  7. They create ownership of the solutions.  “Based upon your experience, what should we do here?”
  8. They cause the person to stretch.  Open-ended questions can encourage a respondent to expand on ideas and explore options.  “What do you think about … ?” and “What do you think should be our next steps?” give permission for the person to share their thinking with you.

Now, not all of our questions are “good” questions.  Too often we ask really terrible questions.  We talk too much and accept bad or no answers.  We are too embarrassed to be direct or we’re afraid of revealing our ignorance.  So we throw softballs, hedge, and miss out on opportunities to grow.  Five specific behaviors we should be on the watch for are:

  1. Don’t ask multiple-choice questions.  When we are nervous, we tend to ramble and our questions can trail off into a series of possible answers.  This is not helpful.  If I’m the one with the question, why am I talking?  I need to stop talking at the question mark.  It’s OK to be brief.  And if I need to present a preamble to the question, it goes before the question.
  2. Don’t ask leading questions.  If you know the answer, why are you asking?
  3. Interrupt with questions when absolutely necessary.  Stopping the conversation to ask the right question is far preferable to nodding along in ignorance.  Don’t stop the conversation to interject your commentary.  You do stop it to steer the response by adjusting the question.
  4. Field non-answers by reframing the question later in the conversation.
  5. Don’t be embarrassed.  The worst question is the one left unasked.

Over the past several weeks we’ve provided a significant amount of information that contributes to our practice of asking questions.  I suggest that you keep all this information nearby for easy reference as you work on building a strong, supportive habit of always asking good questions. 

Have a great week.  .  .  .     jim 


  1. Mike Maddock, The Four Questions Great Leaders Ask.  
  2. Stephanie Vozza, How to Ask Better Questions.  
  3. 5 Whys
  4. Judith Ross, How to Ask Better Questions.