TADS Insights

Ask Better Questions

1 October 2014


In my work with high-performing successful people I have observed that they are masters of asking good questions.  Good questions of themselves, good questions of others, and good questions of their organisations.

The power of a good question is that it’s a genuine attempt to solicit new information and it is asked in a way that motivates and empowers.  Poor questions, in comparison, have exactly the opposite impact.  Consider these:  Why are you behind schedule?  Where’s the problem with this project?  Who’s the weakest link?  Whose idea was that?

Too often we ask poor questions not realising that they are not real questions but veiled attempts at casting blame or even manipulation.  At the extreme, questions beginning with “Don’t you agree with me on …” are severely limited on so many fronts.

Good questions cast new light on situations and are asked in a way that not only allows for creative insights but are self-motivating and empowering.  Try these: What key things need to happen to achieve the objective?  What kind of support do you need to ensure success?  What have you accomplished so far that you are most pleased with?

Really great questions begin with the word “What”.  Unlike all the other starting words (who, why, how etc) “what” questions are neutral in that they don’t attempt to direct blame, but are open and lead to a possibility kind of thinking.  Most questions can be rephrased as “what” questions with a little effort.  Instead of asking “Why are we in this situation?” try “What factors lead us to be in this situation” and “What do you think about …?”

When asked a good question the responder is given the space to reflect, challenge taken-for-granted assumptions, and given the courage and strength to generate positive action.  You’ll notice that in really great questions, the role of the questioner is to be in the background, almost invisible, so that the responder can feel genuine freedom and allow for creativity to emerge.

The main reason we don’t ask good questions is that we are afraid of what we might discover.  This leads us to be shielded from the truth and have a distorted sense of reality.  But as GE’s former CEO Jack Welch says, leading successfully means “seeing the world the way it is, not the way we hope it will be or wish it to be.”

This means that the questioner should not only be brave but must also be very comfortable in their own skin in order to ask great questions.  They are selfless with the belief that the response from the question is far more important than their own ego or the need to “show-off” their own knowledge.  Like many other management skills, it all begins with self-mastery and really knowing who you are.

As a development exercise for the next month:

  1. Notice the type of questions you are asking.  What are your questions achieving?  What word do they begin with?
  2. What kinds of questions do those around you ask?
  3. Note what you’ve learned and experiment with making some changes.  Perhaps involve your colleagues in the exercise too.

Now, what great questions are you going to ask?  And of whom?

-- David Keane