ask questions

Getting the Wrong Answers? Ask Better Questions!

How would YOU respond to an email like this:

We’re considering scheduling something different this year as an opening “mixer” for our next conference. As you recall, in the past, we’ve set up golf tournaments. Some years, we’ve let attendees chose what they wanted to do from a list of 3 or 4 activities—a dine-around, a spa package, hiking. Sometimes these activities get good participation and sometimes not.

Your thoughts?


What thoughts? Does the writer want to know

  • If they should continue to schedule these same mixers?
  • If they should consider new activities this year?
  • If the reader thinks these mixers have been successful in the past?
  • If the reader has ideas for new activities?
  • Why participation varies from year to year?
  • All of the above?

If you ask the wrong or unclear questions, you’ll likely get vague answers or no answers.

In communication studies, questions rarely get the attention they deserve. Yet they can be powerful leadership tools. Ask too few, and your team may think you’re closed to input or not interested in them personally. Ask too many, and your team may feel like they’ve just been cross-examined for some ulterior motive—or demotion.


The Best Leaders Ask the Right Questions in the Right Way


Ask Strategic Questions

Increase your contribution by asking thought-provoking questions to spur thinking and prevent missteps. After collecting and analyzing data, often the value of external advisors (attorneys, wealth advisors, accountants, consultants) lies not in the answers they provide but in the questions they ask.

Inventors stumble upon new process and new products because they’re curious and continually ask others (or themselves) provocative questions—and then they or their team go on to discover or develop answers.

Generally, the more provocative your questions, the greater value you contribute.


Mix It Up With Open and Closed Questions

Open questions gather opinions and elaboration: “In what way do you mean?” “What’s your perspective on the new policy?” “”What would you say is the best approach to tackle this challenge?”

Use closed questions when you’re looking for a specific detail or fact, or when you’re hoping to clarify a single point and bring people to agreement: “Can you meet this May 15 deadline?” “Do you think $10K is reasonable for such a service?” “Do you think all parties are ready to sign the agreement?”

Be conscious of your phrasing and select the most appropriate question type to get what you want—elaboration, specific detail, or agreement.


Limit “Why” Questions

“Why” questions tend to put people on the spot. They feel blamed. As a result, their first response sounds defensive: Ask “Why did you tell the client we couldn’t handle that project?” A likely defensive answer? “Look, Derek shouldn’t have asked me to cover for him while he was out. This is not my area anyway.”

If your goal is to understand a situation rather than blame, using “how” works much better: “How are you determining what projects the team should take on?” “How do you make decisions about X?” “Tell me your current system to X …. “  Their explanation provides the information you need—minus the part that sounds accusatory.

Then your discussion can move forward productively with the other person in a far better frame of mind.


Dump Loaded Questions

“With such a last-minute, slammed-together presentation for your client meeting, do you have a Plan B in mind in case Henry, the real decision-maker, happens to attend this afternoon?”  That’s a loaded question.

If the team member answers yes, the implication is that he agrees with the characterization of “last-minute, slammed-together presentation.” If the team member answers no, he’s admitting there’s no Plan B—and still accepting the “last-minute, slammed-together presentation” label.

Neither response feels comfortable. The dialogue that follows will likely be confrontational. It’s far better not to load an opinion inside a question.

In fact, the variation—the leading question—also tends to quash honest feedback. “Don’t you think we’re paying too much for that service?” You don’t have to be brilliant to understand what answer the asker wants.


As with many things, with questions, you get what you ask for. Phrasing matters.


Learn more ways to effectively use questions with your team in Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done.

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