Great Questioning Skills Make Great Leaders

When studying for my Diploma in Personal and Business Coaching over 11 years ago, I really learnt some valuable questioning skills.  Everyone has the ability to ask questions I hear you say but are you asking questions in the right way?  Do the responses you receive when asking a question give you enough information so you can make a more informed decision, increase your knowledge or gain clarity on a situation? Great questioning skills should help provoke thought, increase your knowledge and others’ knowledge and help you gain more information so you can make more informed decisions and have gained greater clarity of a situation.

I run an exercise on Leadership & Communication Skills training courses to demonstrate how ineffective questions don’t give you the full result you need, whereas using effective questions and determining your objective from the offset will.

Very simply, I show a slide divided into two, one side has some examples of Closed questions i.e. questions that will give you a ‘yes, no’, black/white’ answer. Questions such as did you eat breakfast?  Ans:  yes / no.   The other side shows examples of Open questions i.e. questions that will help the person answering the question elaborate on the information they are giving you.   Questions such as ‘tell me how that worked / didn’t work for you?’  Both ways of questioning are effective but it’s how and when you use them that makes a difference.

I then talk at a high level that everyone knows about these types of questions.  The response is always nodding heads and quick yeses.  So, I explain that I’m going to prove to them the difference between the use of effective and ineffective questions.  I give each participant a blank, A4 sheet of paper.  I then tell them that they have to replicate (draw) the picture that I’m viewing on my laptop (and out of their sight).  They can however, only ask Closed questions to gain the information to replicate the picture. Generally, there is a buzz and people start firing questions at me, both Open and Closed.  Also, different participants in the group will ask a question that has already been answered. In both of these situations, I stop and say that I’ll only answer Closed questions and that they need to listen to what has already been asked and answered.  How many times have you seen this acted out in a meeting where someone asks a question that has already been answered because the person hasn’t been actively listening to what has been asked and answered previously?  I let this go on for about 3 mins with several interjections from me in the form of an Open question so they can define their objective  ‘What are you trying to achieve as a result of asking your question(s)?’  The answer is very simply ‘to gain enough information to draw the picture that I have on my laptop screen’.

After the 3 mins is up, I then ask them to draw what they believe the picture looks like which is when I generally hear a murmur of discontent.  I do call out that it is not about how good an artist they are but how effective they were at gaining information from their questioning to draw a replication of the picture.  After a few mins, I walk around the room and look at their drawings and rarely if ever, does anyone have a picture that resembles the one I have on my screen.  I then show the group the picture I have and immediately they can see that they didn’t gain enough information to draw the picture.

I then put up a 2nd picture on my screen, one again which they are not able to see and then give the following instruction ‘you can now ask me a combination of Open and Closed questions.  Your objective is the same, you need to gain enough information to draw the picture that I have on my screen.’  I have learnt however, to call out one additional instruction and that is ‘please do not ask the following ‘describe the picture in detail to us’ – which is a great question, but would defeat the learning gained from the activity.

The group then start firing questions at me and this is what happens:

  • A lot of the questions are Closed questions so little information is gained by asking the question
  • They ask a question that has already been answered
  • They don’t build on the information gained from a previous answer and therefore, lose the opportunity to gain further information to help them draw the picture

I do stop several times to coach the group through the above and I call out the objective again ‘what are you trying to achieve as a result of asking your questions?’  I stop the activity after 3 mins and ask them to draw the picture.   I then walk around the room to view their pictures.  Nearly everyone in the group will have most of the detail drawn that is in my picture.  I then show the group the 2nd picture and they can quickly see that their questioning skills were much more effective 2nd time around.

So, a couple of pointers to help increase your questioning skills:

  1. Always define your objective from the outset by answering this question ‘what do you want to achieve as a result of asking your question(s)?
  2. Listen and process the responses you hear
  3. Build on the the information you have gained through your questions or others’ questions to ask additional, more informed questions.
  4. Start with Open questions and use Closed questions to clarify and check for understanding.

I guarantee if you follow the above pointers in your next meeting or 1 to 1, you’ll definitely gain enough information to draw your own picture / conclusions and make more informed decisions.

Until next month.