How to ask really useful questions
These days most of us have 'opportunities' in our work to
influence people. That is, in many of our positions we
don't have direct authority, so we can't order things to
happen, we need to advocate, convince, persuade and
generally, influence others. This can be quite tough!
But there is one incredibly powerful tool that we all
have, that we frequently don't use or don't use as
effectively as we could. That is
the question. Not a simple question, but a
considered question that looks at
enabling forward movement – un-stuck-ness. Could you ask
someone a question that would put them in a position of
power? Read further to find out how!
Think about questions. They are part of communications,
but they are also part of our thinking. The questions we
ask come from our own individual perception of the world
in which we live. New and different questions can
help us to change our perspective. The questions we ask
drive the results we see. They direct our attention. Are
you asking questions that focus your - and others' -
attention on the right place? Do you know the right
place? And how would you know if it were the right place
to focus? What would you see and feel?
The power of questions is that they can lead us to
failure or success. The language we use helps to create
our reality. It is important to be aware of this because
it can often get in the way if used without thought.
Here is a simple, straightforward example:
I worked for a manufacturing company that assembled
computer boards with tiny components on them. There were
assembly lines with machine and hand placement stations
on them. I was asked to do an organisational audit of
the manufacturing facility. At that time, we also knew
that morale was very low and there were quality problems
with the product.
I started by asking, "What actually happened?" I wanted
facts, not opinions or judgements. I was told that
operators were damaging Work-In-Progress. So, I asked,
"Which operators where causing the damage? Which lines?"
I asked questions that would help me to understand
exactly what was happening, rather than jumping to
conclusions or making assumptions (as the managers had).
I wanted to learn what was happening (not why, which
leads to judgements and blame), what was responsible for
what we were seeing.
This helped us to identify the two lines where the
problems were occurring. We could then focus on further
questions: What did these two lines have in common? A
new automatic placement machine which – we ultimately
discovered - had been improperly calibrated. Just think
about what would have happened if we had continued down
the line of judgement – asking the wrong question. The
cost to the company would have been high indeed.
Marilee G. Adams has written a book called, "Change Your
Questions, Change Your Life" (see review below) – it is
one of our favourite books. How can you get the best
answers without asking the best questions? In this book
she has a lovely map called The Choice Map. Based on our
questions we can choose to go down the judger path
(blame) or we can choose to go down the learner path
(taking responsibility). Judger questions close down
options and look for someone or something to blame. They
keep us in victim mode. Learner questions do the
opposite – they open things up and help us to focus on
Another example: There came a time when my team and I and
many others in our function were going to be made
redundant ('laid off' in the USA). I had read Dr. Adams'
book, so I bought a copy for each member of my team to
read and help them through this time. I also coached
many of my colleagues. I remember one in particular who
kept asking, "What did I do wrong?" (ever been there?).
She kept repeating the question. I asked her what a more
useful question might be. She stopped cold and looked at
me in astonishment, whatever did I mean? We worked on
questions that were useful in these circumstances and
choose the Learner path. Eventually she came up with
"What possibilities are there for me here and outside
the organisation?" and "What would I like to do next?"
She felt great relief – she was no longer stuck and
could move forward. She landed a great job in a
different organisation in a very short time (before her
notice period was up). This didn't mean that the
situation was easy for her or for any of us. But if we
could ask different questions we could stop being stuck.
So, here is a list of some of our favourite questions as
food for thought.
- When you’re stuck, a great question is what Nancy
Kline calls an Incisive Question: What if you knew you
could? What would be the first thing you did? (From Time
to Think by Nancy Kline, see review below)
- Other questions for when you are stuck (especially
when dealing with others), What assumptions are you
making? How else can I think about this situation? What
is the other person thinking, feeling, needing, wanting?
( From Change Your Questions, Change Your Life)
- What Solutions Focus practitioners call the Miracle
Question: If you woke up tomorrow and your problem had
disappeared overnight, only you didn’t know it, how
would you know that it was gone? What would people be
doing differently? What would you be doing differently?
And most importantly in this line of questioning, What
- A follow on from the Miracle Question is what is
called 'Scaling': If what you have described is perfect,
where are you now on a scale of 1 to 10? What would it
take to move you up one step?
- Questions on peak performance are very interesting –
ask someone about a time when they saw peak performance
in a particular area (either for themselves or with
someone else) and get them to tell you a story about it.
Explore with great curiosity and a beginner's mind (that
means, no assumptions). You can then help people to
build upon existing strengths.
- What is working?
- How could I get to win/win?
- What can I learn from this?
- What are my choices?
- What am I responsible for?
- What else is possible?
- When we are working in organisations, a particularly
useful question is : Who is the client for Change?
- What is changing? What will be different because of
the change? Who's going to loose what? (Bridges - see
- Who is going to gain what?
There is an entire field of strength-based, positive
methods for change which is based on the idea that the
questions we ask are key to developing (and co-creating)
a new future. If you are interested to find out
more, contact us at
or visit our website for links and books related to
Appreciative Inquiry and Solutions Focus.
You can add to this list of questions and see what you
come up with – it is great having a list of useful
questions in your hip pocket.