Why do we ask questions? The answers are interesting and surprising, varying widely depending on who, when, how and what exactly is being asked.
Great questions provide answers and generate understanding, of course, but they provide so much more. In a business context characterised by deep uncertainty, breath-taking challenges, opportunity and change, a blurring of traditional boundaries between work and home life, and a deep desire to survive and thrive, questions are the way we make progress.
We do this by increasing understanding but also by building confidence in ourselves and others, developing our mindset, shifting our behaviour, preparing and rehearsing, reflecting and, perhaps most of all, by learning. In a coaching context these are some of the biggest benefits and reasons why we question.
The truth is we ask questions for many, many reasons, and not simply to get an answer. For example, we ask questions:
- To hold someone to account for their actions (why did you do that? Did you know you were breaking the rules?).
- To develop confidence or provide reassurance (is that the best option? Are we – am I doing the right thing?).
- To build momentum, measure and guide progress (how will we know if we succeed?).
- To show empathy and support (are you OK? How can I help?).
- To deepen our understanding (why?).
- To challenge authority (why not?).
- To increase engagement, or to deepen our pool of expertise (what do you think?).
- To help us succeed in business (what do our customers want? How is the market changing?).
- To plan and prepare (when? Who? How?).
Remember, questioning is an indispensable skill that enables us to learn, develop our thinking, and arrive at an answer, insight or course of action. For a coach, great questions guide without being directive, they explore and explain without teaching or preaching, they gently encourage, support and challenge, without taking over. They allow coaches to influence, develop and shape someone’s thinking far beyond that their own knowledge or area of expertise, propelling the learner to new levels of insight, awareness, action and effectiveness.
Crucially, questioning is the route to progress. This is because questions enable the people being coached to arrive at their own solutions and, crucially, to “own” them as well. The effectiveness of this tool applies to anyone in a coaching role, whether as a leader, a professional coach, or a people management executive.
Despite their significance and value, however, there is limited understanding of:
- Context-specific questions – specifically, what to ask in the typical and difficult situations.
- The guiding principles behind great questions – how to think like a great questioner, the rules of questioning, the pitfalls to avoid and the essential skills behind great questions.
This highlights two sometimes neglected points about questions: the importance of context and intent (closely linked to mindset). What matters when questioning is not simply what is said, but how, when and why it is said as well. That’s why it’s important to start there.
How good are your questioning skills – and how could you improve?