Nutshell: Do you know how to ask questions?

Written by
Future Talent Learning

22 Sep 2020

22 Sep 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Asking effective questions can improve our communication and unlock ideas and innovation.

Asking questions is fundamental to how we build understanding, unlock opportunities and make progress through life. It is also a key component of active listening, which can help to foster better communication and understanding between people, especially at work, where there are often different and opposing views to reconcile. 

But what is a good question? And how do we even begin to answer that?

Let’s look first to Socrates, the original ‘questioner of everything’. If we were simply in the market for interesting dialogue, rather than enhanced productivity and better relationships with our colleagues, we might embrace the Socratic method. Asking questions to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions is certainly interesting, but it's also risky. In fact, the rigour of Socrates’ questions made the Athenian assembly so uncomfortable, they voted to put him to death – a fate he considered a better option than cowardice or hypocrisy, but still not ideal.

What we need, then, is not just a plethora of interesting questions (and we probably do all need to ask more…) but the ability to ask the right things of the right people in the right way. And as any journalist, doctor or lawyer would tell you, this is a skill we can hone.

Unlocking the power of questions – or how to be more Einstein

Albert Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Many of us focus on having ‘the right answer’, rather than identifying the right question. But in doing so, we miss out on a powerful ally. In their article The Surprising Power of Questions, professors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K John of Harvard Business School draw on insights from behavioural science to make a persuasive case for the value of questions:

“[Questioning] spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and better performance, it builds trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards," they write.

Questioning underpins action learning, which encourages us to ask insightful questions of a group of peers to help with problem-solving.

Asking questions also improves our emotional intelligence, which, in turn, makes us better questioners. Those doubting the efficacy of this ‘in the real world’ may be reassured to know that it can even make us a more attractive proposition when speed dating – and that’s proven by Harvard research.

Brooks and John offer the following tips for raising our game as leaders (if not Lotharios):

Favour follow-up questions

While there are many types of question, follow-up questions (for example, “can you tell me more about…?”) seem to have a special power as they signal to the speaker that we are actively listening, care and want to know more. When we interact with someone who asks us a lot of follow-up questions, we tend to feel respected and heard.

Know when to keep questions open-ended

Personal creativity and organisational innovation rely on a willingness to seek out novel information. Open questions are a catalyst for this, often leading us to hidden or unexpected answers. However, if we are in a tense negotiation or dealing with people who tend to be guarded, open questions may leave room for them to dodge the ball or lie by omission. In such situations, closed questions tend to work better.

Note that questions beginning ‘who/where/when’ are generally more open and facilitative than ‘what/how/why’ questions. While the latter are quite analytical and tend to close down discussions, the former allow the speaker to respond with their ideas half-formed and in a more roundabout way. In addition, asking “what are you thinking?” elicits a looser reply than “what do you think?”. It’s why coaches often ask “where did you go just now?” after a silence, rather than “what were you thinking about just now?”.

Get the sequence right

The right order for asking questions depends on the circumstances. For example, asking tough questions first, even if it feels socially awkward, can encourage others to disclose more sensitive information. Brooks and John give the following example:

“When a question asker begins with a highly sensitive question – such as ‘have you ever had a fantasy of doing something terrible to someone?’ – subsequent questions, such as ‘have you ever called in sick to work when you were perfectly healthy?’ feel, by comparison, less intrusive, and thus we tend to be more forthcoming.”

However, there is always a risk of causing offence with an intrusive question, so, if we are seeking to build relationships rather than negotiate tough encounters, opening with less sensitive questions and escalating up rather than down is likely to be more effective.

Use the right tone

Often, we are more forthcoming when questions are asked in a casual way. Similarly, being given an escape hatch or ‘out’ in a conversation may encourage us to open up. For example, if we are told we can change our answers at any point, even though we rarely go on to do so, we are often less likely to hold back; in a whiteboard setting, where answers can be erased and judgement is suspended, we may feel we can answer questions more honestly. 

Pay attention to group dynamics

Conversational dynamics can change profoundly depending on whether we are chatting one on one or talking in a group. Once part of a group, we tend to follow one another’s lead. It only takes a few closed-off people for questions to lose their probing power, but the opposite is also true. As soon as one person starts to open up, the rest of us are likely to follow suit. 

Types of question and what they can do for us

Mosaic’s white paperActive Listening & Effective Questioning, lists a range of question types with different purposes, often used in a structured ‘question funnel’.

The funnel starts very wide with open questions:

Open questions gather information and facts, e.g. “What sort of concerns and worries do you have about this situation?”. They are useful at the outset, as they put the person we are speaking to at ease and identify areas to investigate at a later stage in the discussion.  

Probing and hypothetical questions then fill in the missing information, increase understanding and suggest additional ways of thinking about the situation:

Probing questions gain additional detail, e.g. “Can you explain why that matters?”.

Hypothetical questions ­suggest an approach or introduce new ideas, e.g. “If you could get additional funding or resources, how might that help?”.

Finally, the question funnel closes in on a conclusion using reflective questions to ensure that all the main issues have been considered. Then, closing questions help to produce an agreed way forward:

Reflective questions check understanding, e.g. “So, would you prioritise the most critical areas for attention first and make sure that everyone knew what was most important?”.

Closing questions bring agreement, commitment and conclusion, e.g. “When will you talk to your team and the client about this?”.

Other question types may be more of a double-edged sword. For instance, leading questions, which are designed to help a person reach the same conclusion you came to earlier and feel would be beneficial, are often problematic. Asking “You will be able to do that report by Friday, won’t you?” as opposed to “When will you be able to get that report done by?” can load on pressure, shut down discussion and create bad feeling.

To see where this risks taking us, take a look at this example from the much-loved UK TV series Yes, Prime Minister. While we chuckle, it’s worth noting that we can all be the player or the played in this type of scenario.

Good questions inform; great questions transform

When we are children, questions fall out of us in rapid succession. We’re curious about “why?”, “why not?” and, very quickly, “why?” again. But as we get older, we lose the habit.

At work, there are many factors that prevent us from voicing our curiosity or our uncertainty, even when we know we should. These run the full gamut from an excess of ego (where we want to impress and are inclined to share our own ideas rather than hearing other people’s) to fear of looking stupid or incompetent (what if we ask the ‘wrong’ question or, worse still, offend someone?). And it’s a matter of workplace culture too, which typically rewards those who answer questions rather than those who ask them.

Because asking questions requires a certain level of vulnerability, corporate cultures must shift to make clear that questioning is valued. MIT’s Edgar Schein suggests that this requires us, as leaders, to show humility, vulnerability and trust – and also to empower others to treat us equitably. It is this that encourages a reciprocal flow of information. “When those conditions aren’t present, questions tend to be constrained or, worse, crushed,” warns Schein.

Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, notes that it’s in just this type of (question-friendly, psychologically safe) environment that breakthrough insights are most likely to emerge. 

In his article Better Brainstorming, he writes that by brainstorming for questions rather than answers, it’s possible to create a ‘safe space’ for deeper exploration and to open up unexpected pathways to potential solutions. 

Having discovered this approach almost by accident with his students, Gregersen began experimenting with it in his consulting engagements. He has since used the resulting ‘question burst’ methodology with hundreds of corporate clients, including global teams at Chanel, Disney and Genentech.

In summary, it’s a three-part process:

  • Set the stage. We should give ourselves just two minutes to lay out the problem. This forces us to frame it in a high-level way that doesn’t constrain or direct the questioning. It’s important to state that only questions are wanted, not answers or pushback.
  • Brainstorm the questions. We should set a timer and spend the next four minutes collectively generating as many questions as possible about the challenge. The emphasis is on quantity, and questions should be written down verbatim.
  • Identify a quest – and commit to it. Individually, we should study the questions, looking for those that suggest new pathways, intrigue us, or strike us as different from how we typically go about doing things. We should then try expanding those few questions into their own sets of related or follow-on questions. Finally, we should commit to pursuing at least one new pathway and devise a near-term action plan. What concrete actions will we personally take to find potential solutions?

Then repeat… Gregersen recommends at least three rounds to extract more value from the process.

The question burst methodology can be particularly useful when it comes to involving quieter, more introverted people, as it doesn’t demand that anyone instantly asserts a point of view. People therefore tend to be more comfortable speaking and are able to contribute useful perspectives which might otherwise go unheard. The most vocal person in the room doesn’t always have the best answers. 

What if we started asking more meaningful questions right now?

Without ‘what ifs’, we would not have the vehicles that transport us to work, the lightbulbs that illuminate our offices, or the computers we rely on. And once we’re at work, it’s questions that will keep us moving forward.

Questions, and the thoughtful answers they provoke, foster smoother and more effective interactions, strengthen rapport and trust, and lead groups towards discovery. Moreover, they remind us of the wonder and curiosity that came so easily during childhood, and which may prove to be valuable innovation tools at work.

The philosopher Voltaire suggested that we should “judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers”. In many ways, our environment is created in response to the questions we raise. So really, where next?


Test your understanding

  • Describe three key elements of effective questioning.
  • Outline the stages and benefits of Hal Gregersen's question burst methodology.

What does it mean for you?

  • Practise using different types of question in meetings and conversations at work to elicit information. Then reflect on the outcomes.
  • Try using the question burst methodology in your next brainstorming session.


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