As a child growing up I was one of those very annoying kids who asked questions all the time. The question often started with why. ‘Why this?’, ‘Why now?’, ‘Why do I need to..?”, and the list could go on.

In some cases, the question was based on natural curiosity. At other times, the question was really a delaying tactic or me trying to find a way to get out of doing something.

A well phrased and well timed question is very powerful. As I’ve written about before in the article Why the question is one of your most powerful tools, questions have the power to shape an idea, change the course of a conversation and broaden your understanding and perspective.

Questions can also be used to derail a conversation, stall a decision, throw an idea off course or disrupt a meeting.

It helps to consider the sincerity and intent of the questions you ask in meetings. Are you:

  • Posing the question to understand, or is the question loaded with judgement?
  • Asking a question that will help the conversation and decision-making process, or hinder it?

There’s a big difference. One style of question is designed to progress the conversation, while the other one is designed to derail to it or shut it down.

Alison Brooks and Leslie John in their HBR article The Surprising Power of Questions”, highlight Alison’s research which found that there are typically four types of questions:

  1. Introductory questions (‘How’s work going?’)
  2. Mirror questions (‘Good. What about you?’)
  3. Full-switch questions, which change the topic and send it in a different direction (‘Did you watch the footy on the weekend?)
  4. Follow-up questions that solicit more information (‘What are you working on at the moment?’)

Her research found that it’s the follow up question that had the most impact because it demonstrated to the person you are talking with that you are listening, interested and eager to know more.

In an organisational setting, you will use all four styles of questions.

Mastering the art of the good question is a critical skill. It can build your knowledge and understanding, elevate your confidence, help you get your idea heard, and position you in the organisation as someone who is an effective leader and decision maker.

While questions that are poorly worded, badly timed, a repeat of what someone has asked or not thought through will have the contrary effect.

Like everything in life, the more you practice the better you will get at it.

When you are preparing for and participating in meetings consider what type of ‘full switch’ or ‘follow up’ questions you may need to ask. This includes being clear on what you want to get out of the question and how you best phrase the question so it is clear, concise and digestable:

  • Content – these types of questions are about gathering data, information and insights, and consequently, they are typically open-ended questions. What do you need to know and who is best placed to answer?
  • Reason – why are you asking this question? Is to clarify your understanding or put forward your perspective?
  • Outcome – what is your desired outcome from asking the question? Do you want the people involved in the conversation to think or act differently? Are you trying to steer the conversation in a different direction?
  • Reflection – what is the likely reaction to this question? Will there need to be follow up questions? Is the question stacked in that it contains multiple questions in the one sentence? Will your question broaden the debate or shut it down? Will it help the conversation or hamper it?

American entrepreneur and publisher of Forbes magazine, Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, said: “The smart ones ask when they don’t know. And, sometimes, when they do”.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®.

Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them get fit for the future of work. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’ and ‘Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate Your Career’. For more information: www.michellegibbings.com or contact [email protected].


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