Learning to ask good questions

When you’re looking to recruit high-calibre personnel to develop and grow a sustainable organisation, you want engaged, motivated individuals who are empowered to find the answers themselves. Find out how important it is to have an alternative mode of questioning to achieve this goal.

“I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”

Arthur C. Clarke

Asking questions doesn’t necessarily make you a good listener, because however good you are at asking questions, you are by definition coming from your own side of the track – you are thinking about what you need to know and what information you’d like to find out.

However, there are ways of asking questions that are better than others. Most of us are familiar with the distinction between closed and open questions. Closed questions result in a ‘yes/no’ answer or in a piece of specific information. “What is your name?” is a closed question, for example. These types of questions can be useful to slow someone down, or close a conversation, but they will kill an open-ended discussion or interview.

For many of us, our education has taught us to ask lots of closed questions. Leaders often feel that part of what they are there for is to know the answers and get to them as quickly as possible, and in seeking information or troubleshooting a problem it often seems that the quickest way to a solution is to drill down by asking closed questions.

Open questions

The usual guideline is that open questions begin with the words when, where, how, why, what and who, but it’s not always quite as simple as that. As you can see from these examples, you can still ask closed questions using these words:

  • “When were you born?”
  • “Where were you when the accident happened?”
  • “How did you store the explosive?”
  • “Why were you in the kitchen yesterday evening?”
  • “What’s your favourite colour?”
  • “Who is your role model?”

Tips & hints 

Here are some wonderful questions for finding out more about people and what motivates them.

To find out about their goals and aspirations:

  • “How will you know when you have achieved that goal?”
  • “What will your life be like when you are able to…?”
  • “What will you see? Hear? Feel? (when the goal is achieved)
  • “How will you feel when the problem is solved?”

To examine current reality and their reality:

  • “What is happening now? What…Who…When…How often?”
  • “What did you make that mean?”
  • “Where does the problem lie, in the task or how you feel about it?”
  • “What rules or assumptions are you using that could be challenged?”
  • “What is the effect or result of that?”
  • (In answer to “I don’t know”): “I know you don’t know, but if you did know?” (a weirdly effective question, this one.)

To help someone explore all their options: 

  • “What do you think you could do in this situation?”
  • “How would you deal with this if you were (a guru, a hero, the best manager in…)?”
  • “What would you do if (your bonus, job, life etc) depended on your solving this issue?”
  • “What would you do now if you were already the person you know you have the potential of becoming?”
  • “What else could you do?”
  • “What would you do now if you knew you could not fail?”
  • “What if (this or that constraint) were removed?”
  • “What are the benefits and downsides of each option?”
  • “What factors will you use to weigh up the options?”

To establish their motivation and level of commitment: 

  • “So what will you do now, and when?”
  • “Will this address your goal?”
  • “If you could have this right now, on a plate, would you take it?”
  • “How likely is this option to succeed?”
  • “What might stop you from achieving your goal?”
  • “What might it be useful to believe?”
  • “How will you overcome this?”
  • “What needs to happen for….?”
  • “What resources do you need to support you in this?”
  • “What’s your first step? Second? Third?”

The results we get with people very often lie in direct correlation with the quality of the questions we ask them, so we need to spend time working out exactly the right way to pose a question to a potential employee.

This article is adapted from an extract from Kate Mercer’s book, ‘A Buzz in the Building: How to build and lead a brilliant organisation‘.

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