The art of asking great questions

The ability to ask great questions is one of the most important skills we can develop and use in the workplace. Used intelligently, questioning can lead to greater knowledge and understanding, improved skills, better working relationships and much more. Questions have the power to challenge stubborn ways of thinking, open the mind to new possibilities, cut through mystification, and encourage decisiveness.

There are many types of questions, each has its own use and benefits – here are just a few.

A simple and useful distinction can be made between open and closed questions. Open questions invite thought and encourage a full answer, they are good for eliciting opinion and encouraging new ideas. These questions often use ‘what’ and ‘how’:

  • What do you think about that?
  • How will you tackle that problem?

Many of the other types of question illustrated below are open.

Closed questions, these seek specific information or clarification:

  • When will that happen?
  • Have you finished the work?
  • What did you say?
  • What time is it?

Closed questions often require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’:

  • Are you going to the party?
  • Do you understand?

Directing questions, as their name implies, direct attention towards a specific point or subject determined by the questioner. They are open questions, but they limit the possible answer:

  • What do you think about my idea?
  • What do you think John will say to that?

Powerful questions are designed to challenge current thinking, they are provocative queries that put a halt to evasion and confusion. They can also act to make the respondent think more deeply and uncover unquestioned assumptions. They tend to be open questions because they are encouraging new ways of thinking:

  • What happens if things don’t work out the way you expect them to?
  • What makes you think Bill will behave that way?

Expanding questions are designed to encourage creative thinking, or thinking ‘outside the box’:

  • What else could your Mary’s actions mean?
  • What other interpretations could you put on the events?
  • What other options have you got?

Slide past questions bypass someone’s usual ways of thinking and any mental blocks they might have. Slide-pasts work by including a presupposition:

  • What were the lessons learned there? (the presupposition is that there were lessons learned)
  • What will you do when you’ve been promoted? (the presupposition is the person will win promotion)

In practice you can combine different types of questions. One of my favourite questions combines a slide past and a powerful question:

  • What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Open questions often precede closed questions, for example, when you’re brainstorming. At first you ask open questions: ‘what else can we do?’, ‘what else would work here?’. Then, when you have a series of options, you might start to narrow down the field and be more specific: ‘which one shall we choose?’, ‘when will we do that?’

The power of a great question can easily be diminished if it’s asked in the wrong way. Here are some simple guidelines to ensure that your questions have the required affect:

  • make sure you are clear about what you want before you ask a question
  • pause before you ask, use that moment to frame a great question
  • ask short questions, they are more powerful
  • avoid long preambles
  • ask one question at a time, don’t ask multiple questions
  • don’t include an answer in your question
  • when you’ve asked your question, remain silent, wait and listen.

Questioning is the other side of the coin to listening – there’s no point in asking a great question if you don’t listen to the answer! To learn more about the benefits of listening, see my blog here.

Finally, let me ask an open question:

What are you going to do to improve your questioning skills?

. . . and now a closed one:

When will you do that?

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