Friday / June 14

What If the Questions You Ask are Actually Killing Your Productivity and Reach?

QVLAs educators we all love the moments that we see light bulbs go on in the classroom.  It is no different with adult learners.  We experience a lot of these “ah-ha moments” during Multiplier leadership workshops while working through the art of the question.  Crafting questions that extract the greatest intelligence from others is no easy task.  In fact, it’s hard!  We challenge workshop participants to move up the rungs of the Question Value Ladder, a tool that helps us see how our questions influence the range of response that might be returned to us. The higher the question is on the value ladder, the better the question is at multiplying the intelligence of others.  For example, on the lowest rung of the ladder, you’ll find “Closed Questions,” where the range of response include a simple Yes/No, or one word answer; then we escalate up to top rung, the Challenge Question – one that pokes at the fundamental assumptions driving the behavior of the individual or organization. As we make our way up the ladder – Open, Leading, Guiding – our audiences brilliantly supply example after example. The examples are free flowing and then something interesting, and sadly predictable, happens. This is our first reminder that all of us stand to benefit from exercising our question asking muscle more frequently, and in a more targeted way.

A participant raises their hand, proudly proclaiming that they have crafted an amazing, stake-your-reputation-on-it, challenge question. Then, they shout out: “Have you considered training?”

Let’s break down a respondent’s possible response options to this question:

  1. Yes, I have considered training.
  2. No, I have not considered training.

And, if you’re my principal or supervisor, by you asking this question, I might naturally assume that you believe I should have considered taking training… so, really, my only option is to say: “Yes, of course, I’ve considered training.”

Now, let’s examine the question, one that was intended to challenge core assumptions. We might start by considering,

  • What assumptions were challenged?
  • How might the asker’s own assumptions about the meaning of “challenge” influence the question?

If the questioner assumes “to challenge” means to dispute the individual’s actions or choices, the pair is likely to be faced with an uncomfortable conversation. Either the respondent is on the defensive, or worse, simply acquiescing to the import of training. On the other hand, if the purpose is to dispute the validity of an assumption – like, an assumption that training will or won’t address the situation – a very different conversation is likely to take place. The challenge question is an invitation to consider the core beliefs or assumptions that are dictating choices. It is a conversation opener, and not intended to overturn an assumption, but rather to explore it and identify an array of possible solutions.

So, why might participants, when exploring the upper end of the ladder, find themselves in the “closed” question, lower-end space? We would like to suggest that it stems from our own beliefs about the role of the leader; the idea that as leaders we need to have the answers, to solve the problems. The notion that the leader has the “answers” is reinforced hundreds of times a day, from the parent who bypasses the teacher and goes directly to the principal for the answer; to the board member who oversteps their role by speaking on behalf of the superintendent.

It is this reinforcement and subsequent, “the buck stops here” mentality that clouds our use of the most powerful tool every one of us comes equipped with from birth – our natural curiosity. We come into this world bursting with curiosity – “oh, I have an arm, what can this do?” – and peak around age 4, asking something like 400 questions a day and by high school that number drops to about 30 per day. We learn over time it is better to have answers than questions, when in reality it is our intellectual curiosity that drives the best thinking and enables us to solve the toughest problems.

So why might we resist the temptation to explore our curiosities? Well, frankly, it can be scary, especially because when we entertain our true curiosity, we have to put our assumptions or interests aside. What happens when you ask a question that you don’t know the answer to and get a response you weren’t expecting? Often the unexpected is just what’s needed to achieve big.

One of the key pieces of research that we share as ambassadors of the The Multiplier Effect, is that “the best leaders have the right questions, not the right answers.” Learning to ask the right questions is a foundational skill of an effective leader and, as you might guess, not all questions are created equal.

So how do you get better at questioning? Thoughtful, productive questioning is a process that takes time, intentional practice and hands-on experimentation. Let’s explore some strategies to get your question asking muscle back in shape, so you can put it to use asking the questions that will stretch your team and organization, making the impossible, possible.

Get A Baseline

A first step might be to simply observe. Get a baseline of how well your question asking muscle is working today, which will inform your next steps. Throughout your day take an inventory of the questions you are asking. First, how many questions on average do you ask?  Then, what types of questions? At the simplest level, grade your questions as “open” or “closed.” Or, ask yourself: how often am I asking questions where I already know the answer?  If you want to up the ante a bit, consider whether your questions advocate for your position or they inquire about other perspectives. Once you have a good sense for the types of questions you ask, select a focus area for improvement.

So, you might be wondering – what’s the magic number? We don’t have a that “leader” magic number, and aren’t suggesting you ask as many questions as a 4 year old but we’re certain you’ll need to ask  more questions than you are asking today. While the number of questions asked isn’t important – increasing the quantity of questions may help improve the quality of questions.

Plan for More Curiosity

It might seem trivial to plan for curiosity, but the reality is, sometimes daily pressures or time constraints make it harder for us to be curious. What if you developed a “pre-meeting” curiosity strategy?  Before your next meeting, make a list of the things that truly make you wonder  about the subject of the meeting or the decisions of a colleague. For example, if it is a performance review meeting, rather than focus on the information you think you need to communicate, identify two or three things that make you curious about the person being evaluated. Turn those curiosities into questions, the more open, inquiry-based, the better.


What’s the best way to get better at asking questions? Yep, you guessed it. Ask them! Create opportunities to test out your questions, experiment. Perhaps, your first reaction to a colleague in need is a question, rather than a solution. And, when you find yourself caught up in a closed question, or one advocating for your position, remember… it’s okay to press pause or rewind. Say something like, “wait a second, let me ask that differently.” Not only do you show others you’re human; you’re likely to get to a better solution, rather than just charging forward with a less powerful question.

Not ready to experiment at work, try experimenting with questions at home. Changing how you ask about your child’s day at school is an easy place to start. You may have read this Huffington Post blog that suggests 25 alternate ways to ask about the school day that will help you get past the typical “fine” or “good” response most parents get. Want to take it a step further? See if you can improve another common yet mundane question we ask kids frequently. What if instead of asking kids “What do you want to be when you grow-up?” you invited them to consider, “What kinds of problems do you want to solve?” Creating a more interesting question, almost always guarantees a more interesting answer.

Investing time in these three strategies will get you on your way to building your question asking muscles. With intentional practice you will be able to more easily move up the rungs of the Question Value Ladder, extracting and multiplying the intelligence of others. If nothing else, figure out how to bring back the curiosity of your childhood and ask one more question today than you did yesterday.

Written by

Elise Foster, co-author of The Multiplier Effect and Multipliers Master Practitioner, is a leadership coach who enables leaders to unlock the full potential of their people. She brings her systems engineering mindset to bear as she invites leaders to bring out the best in everyone around them.

Alyssa Gallagher is the Director of Global Leadership Development for The Wiseman Group and enjoys coaching leaders on the Multiplier mindsets and disciplines. With the goal of improving learning experiences for students, she is constantly exploring “What if…?” with school leaders and works to support radical change in education.

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