Effective Questions

January 28th, 2013 | Leadership

Special Note:  In 2006 I was browsing in a (now closed) Borders Bookstore and came across Leading With Questions by Michael Marquardt.  I only had to peruse a few pages before declaring to myself, “This is a Keeper!”  This book changed forever how I lead!  Recently I have had the privilege of interacting with Mike and he graciously agreed to do several guest blogs and has given me his “cart-blanch” permission to excerpt from Leading With Questions! Thank You Mike!

Excerpted with the permission of the author from Leading with Questions pages 68-69

Effective questions are those that accomplish their purpose as well as build a positive relationship between the questioner and questionee.  Of course, leaders can ask a variety of types of questions, depending on whether the purpose is to build the individual’s or group’s capacity to understand and reframe the problem, to build common goals, to develop potential strategies, or to take effective action.  Questions should not only build a deeper and better understanding of the problem and possible solutions but should also construct better working relations among the problem solvers.

Broadly speaking, questions come in two types: open-ended questions and closed questions. Closed questions seek a short, specific response, like yes or no.  By contrast, open-ended questions give the person or group a high degree of freedom in deciding how to respond.

Consider the following examples.  The topic is the same in both questions, but the responses you get will probably be very different.

  • How have sales been going?
  • Did you make your sales goal?

Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions encourage people to expand ideas and allow exploration of what’s important to them or what is comfortable for them to reveal; they also encourage people to do the work of self-reflection and problem solving rather than justifying or defending a position.  “I find the open-ended questions most powerful in getting people to respond openly without restricting them to a focus,” Effendy Mohamed Rajab told me.

Asking open-ended, unbiased questions also show respect for the views of others.  Open-ended questions invite others to “tell their story” in their own words.  They help to establish rapport, gather information, and increase understanding.  When asked properly, they do not lead people toward a specific answer.  When asking open-ended questions one must be ready and willing to listen to the response, which may take a while to unfold, and which may prompt further questions for clarification.

Open-ended questions should begin with words such as “why” and “how” or phrases such as “What do you think about…”  Open-ended questions can help people think analytically and critically.  Ultimately, a good open-ended question should stir discussion and debate.  Useful phrases to use with open-ended questions include:

  • What do you think about…?
  • Could you say more about…?
  • What possibilities come to mind?  What might happen if you…?
  • What do you think you will lose if you give up [the point under discussion]?
  • What have you tried before?
  • What do you want to do next?

Depending on the scope of the question, you may need to coach others through the question by breaking it down into more specific parts.  For example, “What do you think of our strategic plan?” is such a broad question that people may grope for a way to begin answering it.  You can break it down by homing in on a specific aspect of the strategic plan, such as “What would you identify as the major threats and opportunities we face?”

Michael J. Marquardt is the President, World Institute for Action Learning and a Professor at George Washington University. Mike is the author of 20 books and over 100 professional articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization and organizational change including Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations and Leading with Questions.


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