Monday, 22 August 2011

Asking Good Questions

Earlier this summer we shared five practices effective leaders use to accomplish extraordinary results.  One of them - "Challenge the Process" - recognizes that leaders today must continuously ask how to get better and improve outcomes.  They ask, "Why are we doing what we are doing?  Why are we doing it this way?  Are there more effective things we can do?" (Kouzes & Posner, 2002).

In today's fast-paced world, leaders can't possibly have all the answers.  They need to use good questions to guide others to get to the "right answers".  Peter Scholtes (1998) identified "seven basic all-purpose questions" leaders must ask:

  1. Why?  When you encounter a problem, ask why.  Ask why as many as five times to get to the root cause of the problem. 
  2. What is the purpose?  People love to suggest things and often grab onto new ideas to implement in their organizations without making sure there is a match between the organization's needs and their ideas.  Help people clarify the purpose - or desired outcome - as they plan new projects.
  3. What will it take to accomplish this?  While it is nice to dream, your job as a leader is to support people to implement their ideas.  This question gets others to think through the methods they will use to put ideas into action.
  4. Who cares about this?  Ask this question to make sure you are choosing actions that will matter to the right people.  If the people you serve notice or care about the action, it should have higher payoff for you.
  5. What is your premise?  Many suggestions and ideas are made without stating the assumptions or beliefs that are guiding them.  When you ask people to state their premise or assumption, you help them gain greater insight.
  6. What data do you have or could you get?  Some suggestions and ideas are based on perceptions and hunches - asking this question pushes people to "ground" their actions in real data.
  7. What is the source of your data?  Before you base decisions on data, make sure it is valid and comes from a reliable source. 
Increasingly, a leader's role is to coach colleagues to think through plans, anticipate problems, and get the right things happening.  Questioning and demonstration are the basic tools of a good coach.  Here are some other questions that Scholtes suggests leaders ask when a team is implementing a new project or intervention:

Prior to Starting

  • What could realistically go wrong?
  • How might that be prevented?
  • What should we monitor to see if the problem is occurring?
  • How can we be prepared to react if it goes wrong?
During Implementation

  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • How do you know this is the right thing to do?
After Implementation

  • Are we getting what we wanted?
  • Are we avoiding what we didn't want?
  • Do we need to make adjustments?
  • How would we do it differently next time?

From:  Leading Every Day by Joyce Kaser, Susan Mundry, Katherine E. Stiles, & Susan Loucks-Horsley
Published by: Corwin Press


  1. These questions can be thought of as an extension of the idea of "critical thinking". These are the quesions a critical friend should be asking. In particular, the questions related to gathering data, interpreting data and making extrapolations from data help us to use relevant information that allows us to focus on the goals and not be distracted by interesting but irrelevant observations.

  2. Asking good questions brings to the surface what is real and what is true. This year I participated in a workshop called Solution Focused Counselling offered by YRDSB. It was such a dynamic and powerful method used to help students through conflict and challenges. The premise of the method is to ask questions to help individuals reach their own solution to their situation. In asking the right questions, the "coach" is helping to bring to the surface the core of the problem or issue without preaching or dictating what is "wrong" or what needs to be "fixed" in that particular scenario. Asking good questions is a good way to eliminate superfluous, ineffective material to get to the what is real and what is necessary. The key is to learn how to determine the "good" questions for the situation.

  3. Of the 7 Questions, the 2 that jump out at me as being really at the forefront are "What will it take to accomplish this?", and "Who cares about this?" Without these two being considered the others, while also important, may quite literally be a non-issue. A lot of our discussions have been around getting staff to buy-in and that without that buy-in very little meaningful change can be accomplished.

  4. In this article, the line that caught my attention is: "Increasingly a leader's role is to coach colleagues to think through plans, anticipate problems, and get the right things happening." I have always admired people who appear to know just the right questions to ask, so that you ask yourself, "Why didn't I think of that?"!
    It's nice to see the process of asking good questions itemized in a succinct article like this one. So often, we are tempted to jump right in with suggestions, but the fact is, when people come to us to share ideas and/or problems, they don't necessarily want our suggestions. Think about the last time you shared a problem with your mother (or other family member) and she immediately made a suggestion/gave advice as to what to do. You don't feel heard when that happens; and that's key to building or damaging relationships. I know I'm often guilty of that approach at home!

    I've been fortunate enough to have spent time with people who are so skilled in the art of questioning that by the end of the discussion, I have felt that I came up with the plan myself (which I have, but could not have arrived at that point without the coach).

    Catherine Fosnot is someone who is expert at facilitating conceptual understanding in mathematics through questioning. She very rarely, if ever, will answer a child's question. She will ask more questions or will paraphrase the student's words to ensure that she has understood what they're asking. Often just that act of paraphrasing clarifies things sufficiently so that the student's next statement is, in fact, the answer to his/her own question!

    Kim referred to critical thinking. We had the opportunity to spend time with Garfield Gini-Newman and he never, ever "answers" a question but again, asks clarifying questions to extend the listener's understanding. He went so far as to say that sometimes one might say, "I have AN answer" - this reminds us that there is seldom ONE answer or THE answer, except in very few circumstances.

    I think that before I begin to ask the "seven basic all-purpose questions", I would paraphrase what I'd heard, perhaps saying something like,
    "So I understand you're thinking of..."
    As suggested here, if it is an initiative we're discussing, I also like to ask about its basis in data (as well as the "source" of the data) and how the idea connects to the curriculum.

    Jamie noticed 2 questions in particular and I think it's very important to remember to ask our selves these questions. As leaders, if we are implementing something and the answer to the question, "Who cares about this?", is few people, or no people, then it is our responsibility to find a way to present the idea in such a way to make it worthwhile, valid and justifiable.

  5. @Lynne, I connected with the point you made about questioning the basis of an initiative by asking for the data that would support it. Also, an idea needs to connect with something sound or researched such as curriculum, as you suggested, or school plans or board plans. Ensuring that the project, initiative or intervention is connected to a higher purpose-proven research or a collectively created plan, the questions can serve to ensure that the school remains true to its vision and mission.

  6. I see two aspects of the questioning process in the leadership role. First, there is the need to fully question, ponder and clarify my own understanding of any initiatives. I need to be clear and planned in my mind before I can present initiatives to others. Going through a questioning process and identifying needs, strenghths and pitfalls can be essential to any successful initiative. Second, there is the need to be the reflective listening and asking coach to the ideas of others so they can work through their own thinking and come to a clear understanding of a concept. A strong leader needs to have skills in both types of questioning and there is need to allocate time and efforts to both.

  7. As I was reading the above great posts, it occurred to me that, in fact, questions acted as coaches of a sort, or, more specifically, questions are a bridge that help us learn to coach ourselves.
    It was refreshing to go through them and ponder situations in their light instead of reading more good advice from gurus (and I love reading these as well, but they're more work to transform into action).
    Lesson for me - talk less and ask more questions - of myself and in other situations. :)

  8. I think Jan that many of us, counting myself in, will try to remember to talk less and listen more. The role of the supportive coach, although not my first response in any conversation, needs to be an intentional decision I make to better support the thinking process of others.

  9. Lynne and Daniela both mentioned the need to look at the data. I think that question 1, WHY? should be directly linked to the data. In response to the question WHY, staff need more than just "because the board told us to..." in order to be motivated. If this answer is linked to data it helps to give a solid foundation.

  10. I think that there needs to be a distinction between asking a genuine question, and asking a question for the purpose of helping others clarify their own thinking. Sometimes leaders need to ask questions without a predetermined answer in mind and sometimes questions are designed to help others come to a common understanding of an idea. There is real skill in managing these two approaches. Also, it takes courage to ask a genuine question and to be willing to hear all the possible responses.

  11. Something Lynne posted really resonates with me...'sometimes one might say, "I have AN answer" - this reminds us that there is seldom ONE answer or THE answer, except in very few circumstances' - what a great point Lynne. After reading that sentence I instantly found myself thinking how easily I can apply that to my everyday teaching. Rather than attempting to elicit "THE" answer, I'd like to try getting my students to begin thinking and using language like, "one possible answer is..." etc. I will also encourage them, if they don't have an answer to offer, to at least ask further questions to guide them toward discovery. thanks for getting me thinking Lynne!

  12. In reading the last four posts, I have decided that I am going to work hard to keep in the forefront the idea that I do not have to fix everything. I do not have all of the solutions. I will intentionally remember to listen first without the data in my brain anticipating what the speaker needs and then quickly offering a solution. That is not always helpful and I am realizing that allowing others to speak and allowing a pause or silence is okay. Asking the good questions, Athena, is a courageous act. There are times when the answers will not be pleasant or constructive and may give rise to more questions! My challenge will be to remember to maintain silence and to remember to formulate good questions. Thanks everyone for sharing.

  13. I'm glad the point was meaningful, Jamie! I don't take credit for it though - it's from Garfield Gini-Newman. Take a look at his website TC2 (Critical Thinking Consortium) for more great ideas! And Daniella, I have learned that when one puts into action the approach that you've articulated, namely that "I do not need to fix everything/ I do not have all the solutions", an amazing thing happens! I find that if I genuinely feel that I am seeking input (and not feeling deep down that I really do have THE answer,) then a solution or answer is borne out of a team approach and when that happens, the buy-in on both sides is greater.
    None of us is a keeper of knowledge, especially in this information age, when
    knowledge actually changes before our eyes - is Vitamin E currently good or bad
    for us? How about Vitamin D? Is Global Warming a fact or not? So a team
    approach is always more effective that just one person's ideas. A good leader
    needs to facilitate team discussions by asking apprpriate, thought-provoking
    questions and one thing I do know is that that takes a lot of practice!

  14. I really like the message in this week's post. The questions provided are useful ones and I will definitely be using an idea from a previous post and compile these for my reference. I think that being an effective leader means being reflective and these questions help us with that.

    Also, when we think about building capacity and making changes that are sustainable even if we leave a school - then asking questions rather than providing answers will help with this. It's important for others to know that leaders don't always have all the answers or solutions but together we can arrive at them. I feel this builds a culture of collaboration and when others reflect on the questions we ask they become better at articulating why they do what they do. This is important for leaders as well.

  15. Daniella,
    It's interesting because as I read your comment about not jumping in with solutions but rather to pause and ask good questions I was thinking the same thing. When others come to me with a problem or a question my first reaction is one of wanting to provide the solution and 'fix' things. Sometimes that is needed - especially in an emergency situation that involves student safety. However, many times I have found that by pausing and asking a reflective question you can begin a conversation with a person that isn't a 'tell' but rather a co-construction of the solution. As you point out, this can be a courageous act and not always easy to do.

  16. A former principal of mine - someone who had tremendous impact on my professional (and personal) development - once said to me that he will know if he's been an effective leader if after he's gone, those that he's left behind can lead themselves. I'll never forget that. I can connect that statement to this line of thinking here in this article. If as leaders we encourage others to ask questions of themselves and not rush to find THE answer without first questioning we will in the process be building capacity.

  17. Athena, you make a good point about asking genuine questions as opposed to one you have a predetermined answer to. I guess a way of avoiding this would be to truly believe that you can arrive at answers and solutions together. I found that some people ask seemingly 'reflective' questions but then keep pushing until they get the answer they are hoping for. After a while, this becomes very obvious and people tune out - trust is broken down and it's difficult to engage in a meaningful dialogue with that person.

  18. Pausing and taking time to compose and ask a reflective question instead of jumping to conclusions and solutions is excellent advice and I agree that i's embedded in the message of this article. That's why taking the time to say, "So what you're saying is..." gives one the opportunity to really understand the intent of the other person (huge in building collaborative relationships) and buys time to compose that reflective question. Nadia and Jamie have connected to "building capacity" and if, as leaders, we can encourage those whom we lead to be reflective, thoughtful, good listeners who believe that answers, directions, plans and even solutions lie in teamwork, then I think we will have taken a big step toward fulfilling that aspect of leadership responsibility.

  19. Lynne, your last comment about taking time to compose and ask a question reminds us yet again of the importance of being reflective and not rushing. Again, I see the need for a leader to know when action items need to be pushed through at a fast pace and when it is better to stop, think, ask questions, and work collaboratively.

  20. Your 2 pronged thoughts are similar to those thoughts that came to me after reading the post. While I often feel somewhat defensive when queried on an idea or solution I propose, experience has taught me to seek out "test" situations where the insightful questions will be asked. These are special people who can both ask the insightful questions and take the time to do it.

    As teachers, we often believe we have a solution to just every conceivable problem (or at least an opinion). Many of us deal with these situations by offering up the solutions as a coping mechanism for dealing with time pressures and don't really take the time to drill down on a problem. By having those critical thinkers as your go-to people, a better product often emerges.

  21. Isn't it interesting that we place so much value on our students having the "right answer" and yet when it comes to helping others and ourselves we are now discussing asking the "right questions". Is there too much emphasis on the right answer for our students? Would it be okay for them to know the questions and where to go to find the answers rather than spitting out rote answers? Where does stimulating conversation come from? Memory or the questions that come from the topic? Everything has its place. There are times when people just want (and need) the answer in a timely fashion and then there are places to answer a question with a question.