Is there such a thing as asking a bad question?
Well, according to the teachings of Confucius, “The person who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the person who does not is a fool for life.” What this tells us is that questions should be asked, because they help us gather information and gain knowledge, satisfy our curiosity, and helps us avoid making wrong assumptions. I’ll take it one step further to say that asking questions is a fundamental skill in communication, because it lets others know we’re interested and we’re listening. By asking questions to those we engage, we are helping to build trust and strengthen the relationship.
However, not all questions are the same, meaning they offer different value depending on the situation. In coaching, where the value of questioning is to help our clients reflect and explore options, and decide on the appropriate actions that will help them achieve their goals, the question and how coaches ask it is paramount. I think you’ll also agree that in all other walks of life there is such a thing as asking a better question.
Questions to avoid:
- Low-value: “How are you?” My apologies if I’ve asked you this well-meaning, but useless, question before. This is a superficial question because most of the time, the person asking the question doesn’t expect an insightful answer, and therefore the person who answers the question doesn’t offer anything truthful or insightful.
- Absolute or Leading: “Why do you always do that?” Using absolute terms like “always” or “never” puts others on the defensive, and this is not a good position to encourage others to share information. These questions restrict how others can answer, and how receptive you will be to their answers.
- Self-Qualifying: “Does that make sense?” Questions like this make the speaker seem uncertain of what they just said. Worse, it makes the listener doubt whether they fully understood or appreciate what they were just told.
If you catch yourself asking these types of questions, ask yourself: How can I reduce or prevent myself from doing this? What alternatives can I use to accomplish my goal?
Better questions are:
- Easy to understand. Try using simple and basic terms so others know what you’re asking. Keep your questions short and succinct. Even 2-word questions like “What’s next?” can be very impactful. Note ‘easy to understand’ doesn’t mean ‘easy to answer.’
- Open to different answers. Curiosity drives learning and innovation, and is the ‘appetite of our minds.’ Without making assumptions or expectations, there is a time for Yes-No questions, and an even better time to be delighted by whatever response we get back.
- More valuable for the person who answers the question. Coaches are trained and motivated to help their clients discover insights, revelations and self-enlightenment, and they do this by asking powerful questions. Perhaps everyone else doesn’t need to be this dramatic, but adopting the coaching-mindset in our everyday lives through the practice of prompting pause and reflection can be a wonderful gift to others. “What haven’t you thought of yet?”
The simple but powerful action of being impeccable with your words (from Don Miguel Ruiz’ The Four Agreements
) means we have a choice to either make a large or small impact on others. I advocate making a big impact by intentionally choosing the words we use to communicate with others. Crafting the questions we ask is a wonderful way of honouring those with whom we engage.
Let me know in the Comments section below: What is your most powerful question?
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