As our daughter grew up, she asked lots of questions. In fact ‘why’ was one of her most used words! I later discovered that I was not alone. An average four-year-old British girl will ask her mum 390 questions a day and boys aren’t far behind. You can imagine the mind of a child wanting to make meaning of what she sees, hears, feels and tastes. It is an exciting time as children discover new ways of being and doing things.

However, what’s fascinating to me is that we seem to give up this behaviour of asking questions as we move into adulthood.  Society and even organisations tend to be more reluctant to us asking too many questions. Only the other day my daughter shared with me how one of her teachers asked her to ‘hold back on asking the questions!’

Warren Berger, author of ‘A More Beautiful Question’ suggested, “As a journalist I never considered the critical role questioning plays in enabling people to innovate, solve problems and move ahead in their careers and lives.”

This reflects my own experience both as a parent and in my role as an executive coach. Encouraging our children to think independently, with an open and curious mind, in my experience, helps them to make decisions and increasingly solve their own problems. Similarly, in our role as leaders and as coaches, we are there to encourage, support and challenge our team members and coachees to see and think for themselves so they can accomplish their goals and move forward in their business. In both situations, it is the capacity to ask questions, rather than tell them what to do, that seems to ignite the mind and illuminate their potential.

Some might say there’s no such thing as the right question.  It is, in fact, a matter of timing and relevance.  However, with thoughtful preparation, in terms of our mindset, enquiry and situation, asking questions that best serve the thinking in another and taking the interaction forward will generate deep quality relationships.

Developing your Mindset

As you consider the impact of asking questions, I encourage you to be open-minded and get comfortable with not knowing.  A famous Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, in his book ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’, he writes, “the mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert.  Such a mind is open to all possibilities and can see things as they are.”

In my experience working in organisations, a challenge I see for some senior directors is to encourage the diversity of thoughts and ideas from their less experienced colleagues. They seem to overlook the fact that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities yet in the expert’s, there are few.

The solution is to create an environment where individuals know that who they are and what they do matters. It means creating an environment where individuals have the opportunity to develop their talents and grow. To do so is to be able to ask questions, free from judgement. Equally, as leaders, it is our capacity to ask open-ended questions that stimulate the best thinking in those around us. Of course, the ability to ask such questions comes hand in hand with the capacity to listen. Listening with empathy and to generate the thinking in others, rather than simply waiting to speak.

So rather than rush in, interrupt or even finish their sentence, get comfortable with silence and allow for new thoughts and ideas to emerge in the presence of your question and your attention.

Joichi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, suggested when the world moved at a slower pace and things weren’t quite so complex, we spent the early part of life learning, then once we became an adult, we figured out what our job was and repeated the same thing over and over again for the rest of our life.  Today, because of constant change and increased complexity, that rinse and repeat approach in adult life no longer serves us well.  When so much of what we know is subject to revision or obsoletion, the comfortable expert must go back to being the restless learner.  One way of doing so is to develop our ability to ask questions and to be open to what we might discover.

Why is asking questions so important?

Asking questions opens the door to dialogue and discovery. In our everyday lives, so often the impulse is to keep on going, ploughing ahead, doing what we’ve always done and rarely do we step back to question whether we are on the right path.  Often my clients share with me that our coaching session is the only time that they stop, reflect and think afresh in a structured and considered way leading to the birth of fresh ideas, new behaviours and actions that lead them to accomplishing the results they wanted.

On the bigger questions of finding meaning, fulfilment and happiness we are offered an enormous resource of advice and tips and strategies from various self-help books, however, these solutions don’t quite fit us.  Why is that?  Well, because in order to get our own answers we must formulate and work through the questions ourselves.

It seems that the mind tends to work best in the presence of a question. Specifically when you ask someone ‘what do you think?’, immediately their brain receives this as an invitation to think. However, I hear from some of my clients that they are rarely asked this question. Rather they are given their objectives and asked to fulfil them, often with limited resources. If you want to generate the best thinking in others, to increase performance and sustain an effective business model, asking your team members for their thoughts and ideas is essential.  When individuals have contributed their thoughts and ideas and feel valued through your attention and listening, they will add value to you and your organisation time and time again.

Questions are an invitation to creativity and breakthrough thinking and, in my experience, asking questions serves to ignite the mind, unlock potential and move others forward.

Some of the most creative and successful business leaders have tended to be expert questioners, such as Steve Jobs where he recognised enquiring minds regularly identified new opportunities and fresh possibilities.

Why is it that we don’t ask better questions?

Simply because we spend too much time worrying about having the right answer.  We feel that we need to know, we need to know everything and if we don’t have the right answer we may get scolded or put down for it.  Our society promotes more decisive action and quick solutions rather than us having reflective interactions to determine the best questions for innovation.

In this new world of increased complexity and competition, we need to be self-learners who are creative and resourceful and who can adjust and adapt to constant change and being able to ask questions is one of the key survival skills for this new marketplace.

Debra Myer, a principal in a school in New York, made a huge impact in education and created a radical model for a school designed to foster enquiry.  She posed the question, “what might be the potential for humans if we really encouraged that spirit of questioning in children instead of closing it down?”  Myer felt that instead of pushing information at children, schools needed to teach them how to make sense of what they were being told so that they would know what to make of it and what to do with it. I would offer the same approach is as powerful within organisations. As a leader, enabling your team members make meaning of their work and solve their own problems is both empowering and enriching for individuals.

What makes a great question?

There are many parts to a great question and a structure that will enable others to focus their thoughts as you move through an interaction. As a leader, adopting a coach approach to your leadership comprises the ability to ask questions that ignite the mind and illuminate the potential in your team member. A great question is:

One that you don’t know the answer to. Quite simply that could be a question such as, “what are your thoughts?”

One that provokes thinking in another, for example, “what opportunity does this provide for you?”

One that challenges assumptions, for example,  “do you think that’s true?”  or “what might you be assuming that stops you from taking that next step?”

One that is specific and succinct.  It is laser-like to facilitate deeper thinking.  For example, “what do you truly want?” or, “what’s stopping you?”

One that helps the individual focus on what is possible.  “what else might be possible in this situation?”

One that might be formulated by the individual themselves.  I sometimes might ask, “what is the best question for me to ask you now?”  The individual may determine their own question.  “I guess the question I need is, ‘what if I were in the driving seat?’” and so I ask them their question, “what if you were in the driving seat, what would happen?”

The structure of a question

Adopting a coach approach to your leadership will in itself provide a framework for your team members to see and think for themselves so they can solve their own problems, feel resourceful and gain a sense of achievement. A typical coaching conversation will adopt a structure of open-ended questions, probing questions to generate increased self-awareness, reflective questions and occasional closed questions if and when appropriate.

I conclude with a sample coaching framework of open-ended questions that you may choose to use with your team member to ignite their mind and illuminate their potential:

  • What’s on your mind?
  • What else?
  • In relation to what you’ve said, what is the real challenge for you?
  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • What is important to you about that?
  • What else?
  • What options do you have?
  • What is one small step that you can take that will move you forward now?
  • What, if anything, do you need from me?
  • What was most useful for you in our conversation?

Asking questions is a powerful way to help individuals innovate, solve problems and move ahead in their careers and their lives. I encourage you to ask questions, get comfortable with not knowing and listen to the thoughts and ideas of those around you so that together, you create an environment where everybody feels they matter for both who they are and what they do.