Category Archives: Listening & questioning

Using questions

Knowing how to ask great questions is one of the keys to clear and effective communication. Asking the right question in the most effective way can help both the person asking and the person answering.

Questions are a great tool when you’re managing or leading people, when you’re planning, looking for options or making decisions. Questions can help you learn, investigate, be curious, open up possibilities, challenge assumptions and think outside the box.

There are many different types of questions, here are some of them.

The simplest way of categorising questions is think of them as being either open or closed. Open questions invite thought, allow the respondent to choose how to answer, and they encourage a full answer:

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

If you want to ask an open question, a great way is simply to start with ‘what’ or ‘how’.

Closed questions seek specific information, often the answers do not require much thought:

When will that happen?
Have you finished the work?
What did Dave say?

Closed questions often seek clarification:

Are you sure about that?
Are we meeting at 2 o’clock?

Both types of question have their uses. We often find it easier to ask closed questions – try practising asking more open questions.

Beyond the simple open and closed questions there are some more sophisticated types.

Directing questions move the focus of a conversation in a way that is determined by the questioner, often they are some way between open and closed:

What do you think about my idea?
What happened the other day when I was out?

Powerful questions are designed to encourage creative thinking, or thinking ‘outside the box’.

What else could your boss’ actions mean?
What other interpretations could you put on the events?

Sometimes we need to be more forceful. Challenging questions are designed, as their name implies, to change current thinking, to halt to evasion and confusion:

What has stopped you achieving this outcome so far?
What happens if things don’t work out the way you think they will?

Another way to free up, or open up, someone’s thinking is to ask ‘slide past’ questions. These 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)

We might even combine a powerful and a slide past question:

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

Finally, some tips for asking great questions:

  1. Ask short questions, they are more powerful – avoid asking long rambling questions, you won’t get the answer you require.
  2. Only ask one question at a time – if you ask a multiple question you’re likely to only get an answer to the last one you asked.
  3. Be careful not to include an answer as you ask the question – just ask a question.

Questioning is a tool, as such we can improve our skill at using it. What are you going to do to improve your questioning skills?

In my next blog I’ll look at some questioning routes – ways to ask successive questions to powerful effect.

Great questions pt. 2: GROW and 5QF

Here are two very useful tools based on asking powerful questions. You can use both tools to support and help others clarify goals or find solutions, or you can use them to structure your own planning and thinking process.

Both tools are questioning routes, they set out a structured journey based on the power of questions. They will help you think and plan in a positive way. You can use them to help planning, goal setting, and problem solving. They are useful if you’re a project manager, a manager of people, leading a team, running a company, or when you’re dealing with clients or customers.


This was developed as a coaching tool and is now widely used in the business environment. GROW is an acronym for Goal, Reality, Options, Way forward – it provides a structured approach to problem solving and planning.

Some people like to add a T – for Topic – as the first stage to ensure that everyone involved is clear what is being discussed.

It is important to follow the stages in the GROW order.

Stage 1. Goal

Ask: What is it you want to achieve? What is your goal?

Remember – a goal should be aspirational and motivating, and it should also be SMART:

Specific – it is clear, not vague
Measurable – you know when it’s been achieved
Attainable – it’s realistic in the sense that it can be attained, and you have the necessary resources
Relevant – it will help you achieve long-term plans, it is in line with your values
Time specific – it has a time limit

Therefore, after the initial goal question, you might ask others such as:

Exactly what will it look like?
When will it be finished?
How much will it cost?

The goal setting comes at this stage, before the Reality section, so that the process is started on a positive note, and you are less likely to be constrained by thinking about the problems of the moment or past failures.

Stage 2. Reality

Ask: Where are you now? What is the current situation?

At this point you should analyse the current situation, exploring those areas that directly impact on or influence the achievement of the goal. What have you already achieved, and what might be holding you back. In simple terms, you need to know where you are now in order to know how to get where you want to be – if your goal is to make a 1000 widgets a day, or make a journey to a specific destination, you need to know the current level of production or the journey’s starting point.

Stage 3. Options

Ask: What options have you got?

At this stage you should identify the options you have for getting to your goal.

A key question at this stage is: what other options are there? The more options you can explore the more chance of success. Brainstorming can be done to produce a list of options.

Analyse the options and chose the one that will most readily get you to your goal.

Stage 4.

Ask: What will you do now? What exactly will you do?

At this point you need to plan the way forward – how will you put your chosen option into action, what will you actually do?

Sometimes, as you start to plan you realise that there are aspects of the main goal, or sub-goals, that are not clear, in which case you can use GROW again to clarify.



5QF is another framework for tackling problems and challenges, and for moving forward.

It’s a great tool for overcoming ‘blockages’ and helping in situations where no progress is being made towards solving problems. It’s a very positive tool in that it looks at assets – what’s working rather than what’s broken, what you have achieved rather than what you haven’t done.

At the heart of 5QF is a simple set of five questions. The order of the questions is important.

Question 1 – What’s working?

In the vast majority of situations there is something that is working, it’s very rare to have a situation where everything is bad, or broken, or wrong. This question starts the investigation on a positive note, it helps to overcome feelings of ‘I can’t solve this.’

Question 2 – Why is it working?

This question is designed to get deeper into an understanding of what’s right, and it reinforces the positive start. Also, if you know what’s working you can do more of it, and this might help you to find other things that work.

Question 3 – Where do we want to be?

This question seeks to clarify the goal – what do we need to achieve, what will it be like when everything is fixed?

Question 4 – What needs tweaking?

This question moves on from what’s working to look at what is almost working, to look at other things that are already in place or already being done, but which aren’t quite achieving the desired results. In most situations there will be a lot of things that don’t need replacing, they just need adjusting, developing, adapting.

Question 5 – What resources could help?

The last question looks at what else can be bought to bear on the problem – does it need more thought, someone else to give a fresh perspective, more time/money etc? It’s the question that starts to look at what else can be done that is not currently being done.

For more on the Five Question Framework see Kurt Wright, Breaking the Rules: Removing the Obstacles to Effortless High Performance, C P M, 1998.

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?

The benefits of good listening

‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Listening is one of our most useful, under-utilised and under-appreciated skills.

So often we prepare for a conversation by planning what we want to say, and it’s easy to think that we’ve had a good conversation if we’ve done most of the talking and put our point across. However, to think about conversations in this way is to miss a number of very important factors, all of which derive from good listening.

I’ve called listening a skill because while it’s a sense (like seeing and tasting) the skill is in our focus on the data that comes in, and what we do with it in the moment. Because it’s a skill, it can be something that we are good at or not so good at, and it’s something we can develop and improve.

Good listening has lots of benefits. For the listener, it ensures good understanding and opens up the possibility of new insights and new knowledge, and it develops and satisfies a sense of curiosity.

For the speaker, it provides the space and time to fully express their thoughts – being listened to encourages them to be open. Also, being listened to will help to build someone’s self-esteem, and it encourages them to trust the listener.

The benefits for both speaker and listener are greater rapport and a deeper relationship.

So, what is good listening? There are three types, or levels of listening.

Level 1 listeners don’t even listen, they feign listening while they look over your shoulder, or get lost in their own thoughts. At best, Level 1 listeners hear what is being said but only focus on their own thoughts and only understand what is being said in relation to themselves.

An example from a work situation might be:

John says ‘I’m finding it hard to work the Jack, I’m not sure what I can do.’

Bill says ‘I find him really easy to work with.’

Bill has heard the words but has only processed them in a way that relates to himself – he’s completely missed what John was saying about himself.

Level 2 listeners are ‘practical’ listeners, they hear what is being said in a matter of fact sort of way – they process the information and think through the implications of what is being said. In the above example, Bill might answer by saying: ‘that’s going to make teamwork difficult and slow down production time.’

Level 2 listeners might also show that they are listening and acknowledge that they understand – perhaps by keeping eye-contact and nodding.

Level 3 listeners are empathic listeners. They listen intently (what is being said is their primary focus), they acknowledge what is being said, and they are aware of other signs of communication from the speaker – the tone of voice, the speed of delivery, the pauses for thought, gestures and other body language etc. At level 3 it is impossible not to listen empathically – here the listener will be thinking about the implications of what is being said, not for themselves, but for the speaker.

In the example above, if Bill was listening at level 3, he might say:

‘What is it that you find difficult?’

‘I understand why you feel like that.’ (even if Bill doesn’t feel that way himself, if he’s listening empathically he’ll understand why John feels that way)

‘What are you going to do about it’ or ‘Is there anything I can do to help.’

When someone listens at level 1 there’s a good chance that the speaker will notice that they’re not being listened to properly. This can lead to feelings of being undermined or unimportant, and they will be dismissive of the listener. Needless-to-say, we should strive to listen at, at least, level 2.

The benefits of good listening in the workplace are numerous – it helps to bring about:

  • good understanding about what needs to be achieved, what is to be done and how it is to be done
  • good relationships between colleagues
  • good management – good listening is a key skill for managers
  • good relationships with customers and clients
  • increased sales – consultative selling relies on good listening

One of the first jobs I had in my early twenties was working on a construction site – on my first day, Dusty (the man I’d been assigned to work with) said to me ‘you’ll get on here if you remember that you’ve got two ears and only one mouth.’ Great advice!

Who have you listened to today?