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The Answers are in the Questions

The Answers are in the Questions

Do you sometimes find yourself in situations in which you coach others or you must get to the heart of very difficult situations so you can make better decisions. Your ability to ask questions and help others clarify their own meaning is frequently key to your ability to function lead and effectively.

However, knowing how to ask the right questions is a skill that leaders often must learn.

Look at the following parent-teenager conversation:

“How was school today?” …“FINE.”;

“Do you have any homework?”… “NO.”;

“Where are you going?”… “OUT.”

If you look at the questions, you can see how a normal 14-year-old will most likely respond.

The key to quality responses is open-ended questions. Yet, when I have conducted workshops with new and aspiring leaders in which they practiced using open-ended questions, most found the practice very difficult.

Three strategies help listeners and speakers understand situations more clearly. These strategies are clarifying, restating and summarizing.

  • Clarifying questions ask for more information.

(Who is involved? What is the purpose? Why is this situation a concern? Can you tell me more about…? Why do you think this situation occurred? How did you react to her comments? How did others react?)

  • Restating is also called reflective listening. These questions repeat or reflect what the speaker said. A listener pauses after restating his understanding of previous comments to provide the original speaker an opportunity to reflect and clarify his meaning.

(It sounds as if you were following company policy... The team seemed frustrated and angry... You were very confused about the situation… Your group proposed these options...)

  • Summarizing involves stating ones understanding of an event or situation once a speaker explains it. Summarizing allows the speaker to hear the listener’s perception and determine if the two perceptions agree.

(After you met with the client you…. Then… ; You are concerned that he seemed… because… ; You have suggested the following options. Which seem most workable?)

After gaining a clearer understanding of a situation, it is often necessary to delve deeper and explore different options or assumptions. This requires asking powerful or probing questions.

In normal conversation, many questions call for only “yes”, “no” or short factual answers requiring little thought. Short-answer questions include: Have you discussed this with your colleagues? Who is helping you with this? What approach do you plan to use?

Probing questions go beyond short answers; they require additional thought and consideration. They begin more often with how and why rather than who, what, where, and when. They are open-ended.

Probing questions challenge an individual’s or group’s thinking. They invite reflection and divergent thought. They can prompt individuals to consider different options or points of view. They can also change the course of action.

Examples of probing or powerful questions are:

  • What assumptions are you making about his motivation? What if the opposite is true? What other assumptions can you consider?
  • What possibilities arise from this dilemma?
  • What options do you see?  What other options are possible?
  • What do you fear? Why is this situation a concern for you?
  • How have you dealt with similar situations? Do you see a pattern?
  • How does this course of action serve you? What are possible negative ramifications?
  • What are possible roadblocks to your chosen course of action? How can you minimize them? How can you turn the roadblocks into stepping-stones?

As with clarifying, restating, and summarizing, asking powerful questions requires extensive practice and skill. Learning to ask questions that probe, explore and analyze a situation takes more than simple discussion about questioning techniques.

Learning to ask powerful questions requires commitment and practice. It also demands genuine curiosity and concern.

However, asking powerful questions is an important skill that leaders, colleagues and family members (including parents) can develop.  With practice, it is possible to achieve tremendous results.

PRACTICE: I invite you to practice each of these strategies 2-3 times a day and comment below on your progress. What are the challenges you see to asking good questions? How do you overcome them? What other strategies do you use?

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This topic is covered in much greater detail in my book, Connect: Affective Leadership℠ for Effective Results.
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Creative Commons Image with attribution: Lee Down Leedman IMG-4810


Comments (2)

  1. Dan

    Lyn — Thanks for this post that so well outlines some powerful tools to open up conversations. I agree these are both important skills and ones not necessarily easy to master. Experienced communicators are constantly coming back to these “basics” in order to extend their mastery.

    One additional area I’ve found essential in teaching others to ask questions is the notion of “tracking.” One question or paraphrase ought to build on another. It is “in the moment” that the action is happening. You can’t have a laundry list of the right questions in your head. You have to deeply listen and be totally present in order to track the other person. If you do it well, the other person feels truly understood, which would, I guess, be one key measure of success.

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Dan, Thanks for your comments. I agree that being “in the moment” is an essential part of listening and asking questions. I have heard it described as “dancing in the moment.” As you said, it is impossible to use a predetermined list of questions, but being fully aware of the other person’s thoughts and ideas helps to engage and to understand. Understanding is definitely the goal.

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