The Forgotten Art of Questioning.

Whether I’m working with multinational or public sector organisations, frontline leaders or executives, the same skill gap emerges – the art of questioning. It is undoubtedly one of the most important skills to have – in business, leadership and life.

I could ask Why do we go from asking hundreds of questions per day as a child, to only a few as an adult? Amongst other responses, you may hypothesize about parental influence (remember when your parents said “stop asking so many questions”), to schooling where we are rewarded for knowledge & learning the right answer, to human behaviour and fear of looking silly, to workplaces who typically promote on technical expertise, to our culture’s innate preference to “rush to judgment”. Each of these influences inadvertently cut off paths of enquiry, exploration, creativity and curiosity.

A better question is What if we focused less on ‘telling’ and more on asking the right questions? When I ask this question in our coaching and leadership programs, typical responses include: people would think more for themselves, there’d be more creativity, higher workplace engagement, increased learning, more lateral thinking, more problem-solving, we’d stop repeating the same mistakes, there’d be greater in-roads in every facet of life – science, maths, business, psychology, neuro science etc.

Below are five of our favourite processes at STS that use questioning techniques to elicit more information and deepen our understanding of situations, people and even ourselves:

Coaching conversations using the GROW Model– an example in its simplest form:

  • “What do you want to achieve” (Goal)
  • “What’s currently happening? (Reality)
  • “What are the options?” (Options),
  • “What will you do? By when?” (Way forward)

Reframing questions – this is a brilliant questioning technique that stems from genuinely believing in the other person. It helps the other person to move from ‘below the line’ (a flight/ fight/ freeze mindset) to ‘above the line’ (a chosen, more positive mindset) through asking a question

  • Other person: “We don’t have enough resources”
  • Reframing Question: “What can you achieve with the resources you have?” or “How can you streamline works to do it more efficiently?” or “What can you let go of to prioritise this?”

Note that the reframing question isn’t you solving the problem for the other person, or taking more on your own shoulders. You are moving the other person to problem solving themselves, through a questioning technique.

Learning Ladder: Have you ever told someone the same thing yet they continue to get it wrong? If the answer is yes, then understanding the ‘Learning Ladder’ (ignorance – awareness – practice – mastery), coupled with effective questioning, may assist. e.g.

  • “With respect to that high risk activity, what does ‘good’ look like?”
  • “How you are going to plan and execute that high risk activity safely?”

If the person gives you confidence from the first few questions (because they cover safety, quality, team engagement, time, cost, environment etc) then there is no need to do follow up questions. But if not, ask questions such as:

  • “How will you get the team on board”?
  • “How will you check for their genuine understanding?”
  • “How will you make sure it’s done right the first time (i.e. no rework)?”

Through effective questions you can quickly determine if you are both on the same page about what ‘good’ and ‘great’ looks like (‘mastery’ on the Learning Ladder), and help the person accelerate any required learning. The follow up questions can help someone who is at the lower levels of the Ladder and get them thinking and problem solving to accelerate their learning.

Root cause analysis questions – some companies use the 5 Why technique to analyse safety incidents. We’ve helped organisations to use a similar process to understand root causes e.g. of quality issues, budget overruns etc. For example, a Superintendent explains to his Foreman that he wants to understand the root cause of why there was a budget variation. He asks the Foreman to participate honestly so that they can learn collectively. He explains to the Foreman that he is going to do a “5 Whys” root cause analysis to gain a getter understanding of the problem.

  • Q: Why was there a budget variation? Because we had to do re-work Q:
  • Why? Because it rained and damaged the works

  • Why? Because we didn’t stabilise or protect the works
  • Why? Because I wanted to save time, and I made a judgment call on the weather, and unfortunately I got it wrong. I assumed I could make the decision without checking with anyone.
  • Why? Because that’s what I did on the last job.

The Superintendent may ask more follow up “Why?” questions or might decide that the problem was that he needed to be clearer in his expectations, needed to develop a Wet Weather Management Plan and needs to engage and train the team in it.

Parallel thinking – 6 thinking hats[1] – Edward de Bono got me interested in lateral thinking, creativity and problem solving. He developed a practical framework to help people think clearly and thoroughly by directing their thinking attention in one direction. Parallel Thinking is a powerful tool to help creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. The White Hat: facts, Green Hat: creativity & alternatives, Yellow Hat benefits, Black Hat critical thinking, Red Hat emotion/ gut feelings, and the Blue Hat process. One example where I co-facilitated a 6 Thinking Hats exercise was with an earthworks construction team regarding how they will proactively manage wet weather. Through this parallel thinking process the team generated a lot of collective knowledge and ideas to improve their historical wet weather practices. It resulted in developing a robust Wet Weather Management Plan which contained information about the wet weather likelihood, sources and frequency of weather information, what was allowed for in the estimate, investment upfront in materials/ methodology options to protect and stabilize works, outline who is accountable for what, what meaningful work and training can be done during wet weather, and when to consult others or escalate etc. 

Although I’ve explained some of our favourite processes and techniques, there are three pre-conditions for effective questioning. Firstly Trust. I’ve previously mentioned in another blog that 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is one of my favourite books. Trust is the foundation for effective questioning, listening & creative challenge, commitment, accountability & results. Secondly, ‘owning’ the silence – after you ask a question do not fill the space – let the other person think and respond. Finally, genuinely taking the time to check for understanding (e.g. paraphrasing techniques).

Philosopher Theodore Zeldin said, ‘When will we make the same breakthroughs in the way we treat each other as we have made in technology?’ (2001) Questioning is in our nature, it is something that we are born with. We just need to re-learn how to ask questions (& genuinely listen) to improve all facets of our world – business, relationships, happiness, schooling and self-understanding.

At STS Consulting Australia we are in the enviable position of coaching over 3000 leaders, as well as delivering training to many multi national organisations. We are passionate about equipping leaders to succeed – if you’d like to improve your capability in questioning please contact us.


Post written by Kristy Fairbairn, Project Manager, STS Consulting Australia.