What’s your guiding question? - Michelle Gibbings

Five colourful question marks pegged to a string line.

Questions. They can be powerful and provocative. Helpful and unhelpful. When positioned well they are more than a linguistic expression seeking an answer. They can catalyse dialogue, critical thinking, problem-solving and relationship-building.

They can also help guide the decisions you make both personally and professionally. One question I use to guide decision-making is, ‘If I do this, will it overly complicate my life?’. If the answer is yes, then the answer to whether I undertake the action is no.

Good questions are a critical part of your leadership toolkit. The right question at the right time opens the door to new ideas, can reveal underlying assumptions, and fosters curiosity, collaboration, creativity and progress. They can facilitate learning, build trust and help create a more open and transparent work environment. Used wisely, they can uncover the root causes of issues, enabling a deeper understanding of the problem and leading to more effective strategies and decision-making.

Leadership is not about having all the answers. It’s about asking the right questions.

But not all questions are created equal. Some questions can shut down communication, while others can inspire it. Some questions can limit possibilities, while others can expand them. Some questions can generate fear, while others can generate trust.

So, what’s the difference, and how can you avoid unhelpful questioning styles that can hinder their effectiveness?

Questions that shut down
Unhelpful questioning styles shut down communication and damage relationships. The four key questions are closed, leading, rapid-fire and loaded.

Closed questions require a yes or no answer. They limit the depth and breadth of the conversation, which means you’ll miss out on valuable insights and information. They can also make you seem uninterested or dismissive. For example, ‘Did you finish the report?’ or ‘Did you complete the task or not?’ These questions leave no room for explanation or context, stifling open communication and connection.

Leading questions steer people towards a predetermined answer, limiting their ability to think independently. They often imply a bias or a hidden agenda, leaving people feeling manipulated or coerced. For example, ‘Isn’t it obvious that option B is wrong?’ Or ‘You must agree that this approach is the best, right?’ Such questions can pressure team members into conforming to your perspective and just agreeing with you.

Rapid-fire questions bombard the team member with multiple queries quickly without giving them a chance to answer. It can feel overwhelming and intimidating while making you appear impatient or hostile. For example, ‘Who did this? When did this happen? How did this happen? Why did this happen? What are you going to do about it?’

Loaded questions contain a false or questionable assumption or a hidden accusation. They can put people on the defensive, creating a psychologically unsafe atmosphere. For example, ‘Why is your work always late?’ or ‘Why are you always the last to respond?’

Questions to connect and inquire
On the other hand, insightful and powerful questioning styles foster dialogue, connection and innovation. They can also enhance your credibility and reputation. Strive for curiosity, exploration and reflection. For example:

  • ‘Can you share your insights on our challenges during the project? What strategies do you think could improve our approach in the future?’ This encourages a detailed exploration of the situation and invites constructive suggestions.
  • ‘I’m curious to hear your thoughts on our current strategy. What factors do you believe we should consider?’ These questions promote curiosity, encouraging team members to delve deeper into their analysis and share diverse perspectives.
  • ‘What are some of the unmet needs of our customers?’ or ‘How can we leverage our strengths to create a competitive advantage?’. Exploratory style questions encourage deep thinking and help uncover hidden needs, opportunities, and challenges.
  • Based on your feedback, there may be some concerns. Can you help me understand your perspective better?” Questions of this nature demonstrate your commitment to understanding the team’s view and resolving issues. They also encourage your team member to examine their thoughts, feelings, actions, and outcomes.

Tips for asking good questions
Asking questions – good questions – is a skill, and it’s a skill that takes interest and effort to master. So, where do you start? Here are essential tips to apply in your working day.

Tip One – be clear while genuine and respectful
Always ask questions in a respectful and considerate manner. Respectful questions show you value them, their expertise and their experience. Similarly, ask questions out of genuine curiosity, not to show off or put others on the spot. Sincere questions show you care about them and the topic and you’re open to learning from them.

Frame your questions clearly and concisely. Avoid ambiguity to ensure that your team understands the purpose and context.

Allow silence after asking a question. Create time to think. Don’t rush to fill the silence with your words. Silence can be uncomfortable, but it can also be productive. It can signal respect, interest, and anticipation. It can also stimulate creativity and insight.

Tip Two – contextualise your approach
Tailor your questions to the individual and the situation. Consider their background, personality, preferences, goals, and the purpose of your questions. Timing matters, too. Some inquiries are best suited for team meetings, while others may be more appropriate for one-on-one discussions. Adapt your approach to the situation.

While asking questions is essential, ensure they are relevant and add value to the conversation. Focus on quality over quantity.

Tip Three – Use open-ended questions
Use open-ended questions to encourage detailed responses and promote meaningful discussions. These questions often begin with how, what, why and tell me more. They invite your team member to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences without limiting them to a yes or no answer.

Be conscious of how you phrase questions to avoid leading your team members to a specific answer. So, instead of asking, ‘Don’t you think we should implement this new strategy?’ ask, ‘What are your thoughts on the proposed strategy, and how might it impact our goals?’

Tip Four – follow up and clarify
Active listening involves paying attention, paraphrasing, reflecting, summarising, and asking clarifying questions. It also involves avoiding distractions, interruptions, and judgments.

When you pay attention, you can better ask thoughtful follow-up questions. Follow-up questions build on the previous question or response and explore the underlying issues, motivations, and implications. They show you’re engaged, want to learn more and demonstrate your interest in understanding the person, not just hearing them.

For example, after asking, ‘What are the main challenges you are facing right now?’ you can ask, ‘What support do you need to overcome those challenges?’

It’s also crucial to clarify and ensure everyone is on the same page. Clarifying questions check for accuracy, completeness, and agreement. They help to avoid misunderstandings, errors, and conflicts. Clarifying questions start with words like ‘Is it…?’, ‘Are you…?’, and ‘Do you mean…?’. They ask the person to confirm, explain, or elaborate on something they said.

So, instead of assuming you know what they meant by ‘It’s complicated’, you ask, ‘Is it complicated because of technical or stakeholder issues?’. After a team member shares their thoughts, you can respond, ‘Can you elaborate? I want to make sure I understand your perspective fully.’

Use reflective questions to encourage self-awareness and personal growth. Thoughtful questions help your team members to explore their thoughts, feelings, actions, and outcomes. Good reflective questions elevate learning and progress by asking the person to evaluate, analyse, or reflect on something they did or learned.

Tip Five – encourage divergent thinking
If you want innovation and to solve complex problems, you must ask questions that challenge existing assumptions and encourage creative thinking. Divergent thinking questions start with words like ‘What if’, ‘How might’, and ‘Imagine’ and invite people to explore possibilities.

For example, instead of asking, ‘How can we improve our current product?’ you can ask, ‘How might we use new technologies to change our product or service?’. In the context of problem-solving, rather than asking, ‘What’s your solution to this problem?’ question, ‘How do different team members perceive the challenges we are facing, and what insights can we gather from these different perspectives?’

Tip Six – be open to feedback
Encourage team members to share their thoughts on the effectiveness of the questions posed during discussions. After a meeting, ask, ‘How did you find the questions we discussed today? Is there anything you think we could do differently next time?’

As part of this, reflect on your questions and impact. Do you think your questions inspired good discussion? Did they contribute to the team’s progress? Did they uncover issues?

Self-reflection will help you refine and improve your approach.

If you want to make better choices in your life and at work, start with questions. When you embrace the art of good questions, you abandon the assumptions. You embrace the power of curiosity and what comes when you explore and discern rather than assume and accept.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.

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