How to Ask Great Questions

August 18, 2014

What if I told you you don’t need to have a great solution for every single problem that comes your way in order to be a competent and mature leader? Well that’s exactly what I’m about to propose. Hopefully it’s as refreshing to you as it is to me. And the best part about it is that it can dramatically improve your leadership influence as well.

Question Marks

Why Ask Questions?

Many leaders hesitate to ask questions because they fear it will make them appear weak. Leaders are suppose to have the all the answers, right? Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the world we live in has become so complex that it is simply not possible for anyone to have all the answers, no matter how tenured he or she is. But there are all kinds of benefits to asking questions, regardless of how much you know. Here are a few:

Great questions lead to great discoveries. Author and consultant Bobb Biehl likes to say, “If you ask profound questions, you get profound answers. If you ask shallow questions, you get shallow answers. If you ask no questions, you get no answers at all.”

Great questions are the anecdote to advice. Our own advice can be great sometimes, but lousy or misinformed other times. Giving advice is easy and costs little, at least on the surface. In organizational settings however, a leader’s advice can quickly gets translated into a “direct order” with no room for further discussion.

Great questions develop the critical thinking skills of others. If you’re a leader, the critical thinking skills of your team will likely determine how far you go. When you give answers, you get followers. When you give questions (and coach through the process of determining the best answer), you develop leaders.

Great questions delegates responsibility. At the end of the day, if you’re the person everyone comes to with every problem, your leadership bar will remain low. Leaders need followers who can solve problems on their own. And keep in mind that a person is always more motivated to act on and own a solution he’s come up with himself than to follow the guidance of someone else.

What do Great Questions Look Like?

It’s true that most leaders don’t become great at asking questions until they become great at listening (something that should cause each of us to pause and consider). There’s a learning process for everything. But in the meantime, let’s consider some examples of what great, powerful questions look like.

Leading vs. Non-Leading Questions: A leading question proposes a solution in the form of a question. A non-leading question opens up the possibility for multiple solutions. Consider the differences between these two examples.

  • Leading: “What would happen if you tried having training meetings on Tuesdays?”
  • Non-Leading: “What are some different options for conducting training?”

Closed vs. Open-ended Questions: Closed questions require a “yes” or “no” answer while open-ended questions can have many outcomes.

  • Closed: “Have you thought about creating a new task force?”
  • Open-ended: “What are some ways you could approach this challenge?”

Advice vs. Possibility Questions: An advice question is basically just advice in the form of a question.

  • Advice: “Couldn’t you address that situation at this afternoon’s meeting?”
  • Possibility: “When (or how) could you address that situation?”

Why vs. “Tell Me More” Questions: Why questions can be abrasive and feel accusatory, regardless of intent. No one likes being on trial. Using a “tell me more” approach opens up the dialogue.

  • Why: “Why did you decide to ship only seven orders?”
  • Tell me more: “Can you tell me more about the thought process for this shipment?”

Actually asking great questions instead of giving advice is probably one of the hardest disciplines leaders encounter. I know by personal experience and from conducting training with seasoned leaders. The first step is to stop yourself from giving unsolicited advice. The next step is to respond with a question. The next step is to make that question a powerful one. My encouragement is to give it a try and actually stick with it. Ask someone to give you feedback on your question-asking ability. It’ll be slow at first, but eventually start becoming natural. And the leaders you serve will develop right along with you.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.