How To Ask Effective Questions

Effective questions

How good is your questioning technique? What types of questions are effective in leadership, management and coaching?

Pierre- Marc-Gaston said “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” It would not be an understatement to say that asking good questions is a fundamental communication skill and therefore key to effectiveness in all areas of life. But this skill is of particular importance in work contexts, especially in leadership, management and coaching. Effective questions are essential when leading, particularly at the non-directive end of the leadership spectrum, and when taking a more coaching, mentoring or facilitative approach to management.

Once we are listening properly we will be in the position to consider some good questions. I covered listening in my last post (Are you really listening?) and now we will look at questions and questioning technique. As with listening, becoming effective at questioning requires skill and practise. Therefore, having some tools and approaches to assist you will help and provide a framework for becoming better at asking questions.

What is an effective question?

Logically, we need to define what an effective question is in order to identify the types of question we want to use. A good question does not just elicit information, as John Maxwell states, “While bad questions have a negative impact, good questions actually do several positive things: They clarify objectives; they speed up the process of completion; and they stimulate good thinking” (2005:128). I would add that effective questions also develop mutual understanding and challenge assumptions.

Types of question

There are many types of questions, for example; open and closed, rhetorical, leading, loaded, repeat or negative questions. These in turn have been classified in various ways, according to use, be that research, philosophy, education, etc.

Open and Closed Questions

The classification of questions as being either open or closed is perhaps the best known, and easiest to understand, typology of questions. A closed question is one that can be answered with a single word such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Generally these questions do not encourage people to think deeply, or to express themselves fully. They are useful for clarification though.

Logically, open questions are the opposite of closed questions. They allow the respondent to come up with longer and more expansive answers. Because the answer can be expansive it allows people to be more divergent in their thinking and choose their own language to unpack an idea. Open questions can be constructed in various ways but generally use an interrogative word such as what, who or why.

When training to become a Bomb Disposal Officer I was taught to use open questions using the ‘5 Ws’ (or 5 Ws and an H) framework, a technique often used by journalists to capture a story by using what, where, when, who, why and how as triggers. You can read more about the history of this technique in my post Question like a Philosopher, Answer like a Visionary.

Incisive Questions

Therefore open questions are generally best in unlocking people’s thinking but it is helpful to have a framework to the questions in order to ensure they are effective. A poorly chosen open question is potentially worse than a pertinent closed question. An incisive question should be like a catalyst or a key. It should help to provoke thought, challenge assumptions and create new paradigms. Therefore it is good to have a technique or tool that prompts good questions; such as the 5Wsclean language technique or similar.

One good starting point is the Socratic Method. You can read more about in my post on Socratic Method Questioning Technique.

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Maxwell, J C (2005) The 360 Degree Leader, Nashville: Thomas Nelson

Lévis, PMG (1808) Maximes et réflections sur différents sujets de morale et de politique, Paris

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