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How to Ask Really Great Questions! Helping leaders one question at a time

By Clive Lloyd
Principal Consultant at GYST Consulting Pty Ltd
Developer of the Care Factor Program


Is there such a thing as a dumb question?   A Leader's guide to using questions effectively


The phrase “there is no such thing as a dumb question” is often used in public forums to create a trusting environment such that anyone can ask anything without fear of ridicule or criticism. This makes sense, and indeed, as leaders we should always be striving to create psychological safety so that our people ask questions when unsure and otherwise speak up when challenges are identified.

That being said, some questions are better than others, and there are certain types of questions that should never be used – especially by leaders!

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” -Voltaire


After 20+ years working as a psychologist, I am convinced that one of the most powerful influencing tools we have at our disposal is the effective use of questions, yet developing this skill set has not necessarily received the attention it deserves in leadership development programs.

While most leaders have been schooled about the vagaries of basic ‘open’ and ‘closed’ questions, there are far more powerful techniques that can be explored and mastered relatively quickly that can dramatically impact team culture and performance.

This article will provide some brief insights into how leaders can quickly develop their use of effective questions. It is far from exhaustive, and the interested reader is invited to get in touch with us to discuss how our question-specific Care Factor Program modules can rapidly build mastery in this area within your leadership team.

But first, a brief experiment …

Please DO NOT answer the following question!

What is 2 plus 2?

So what happened? If you are like most people your brain automatically answered the question for you (despite the instruction asking you NOT to). You became conscious of the number 4.


Questions are powerful because they switch the conscious brain on, and our brains are hard-wired to seek answers to questions. It becomes very important then, that leaders are mindful of the questions they ask. For example, consider the following two questions:

1. “Who is to blame?”

2. “What is just one thing we can do to move forward?”

Question 1 will result in the creation of fear and defensiveness, whereas question 2 is more likely to lead to a solution focus.

As leaders, becoming more conscious about the types of questions we ask can quickly result in more helpful and productive responses from the teams we lead, as well as positively impacting upon the prevailing culture.


Assumptive Questions

Again, consider the following questions.

1. “Are there any questions?”

2. “What questions do you have?”

Question 1 is commonly asked by rookie facilitators or trainers at the end of (or prior to a break in) a training session. The question is non-assumptive, and a clear response option to the question is simply “no” (usually evidenced by the group sitting silently in front of the facilitator and wondering if they can leave now!).

In stark contrast, question 2 assumes there are questions, and is more likely to elicit responses from the group.


Other assumptive and powerful questions for the above scenario include:

  • “So, we have now covered the following (xxxx). What is the main question you have, based on what we’ve covered so far?”
  • “At this point in the session, what do you reckon is the most frequently asked question?”
  • Assumptive questions such as the above are extremely powerful, and much more likely to elicit responses than passive questions such as “are there any questions?”.


Internally Locussed (“Above the Line”) Questions

For a number of important reasons it is desirable for leaders to encourage an internally-locussed (often colloquially referred to as “Above the Line”) mindset within their teams. Internally-locussed teams tend to perceive more control and are likely to take responsibility for their choices (for more on the importance of creating an internally locussed team click here).

The types of questions leaders habitually ask their teams can have a dramatic impact (positive or negative) on the locus of control within their teams. The basic rule here is that internally-locussed questions will tend to elicit internally-locussed answers. Equally, externally-locussed questions will encourage externally-locussed answers.


Examples of Externally Locussed (Below the Line) Questions

  • “Who is to blame?”
  • “Why are we so unlucky?”
  • “Can’t you get anything right?”
  • “Why do they keep picking on us?”
  • Etc.

Such questions can be very damaging to relationships and the team culture in general. They serve little (if any) useful purpose and tend to put the team’s focus on blame, fear, negativity and mistrust. 

Examples of Internally-Locussed (Above the Line) Questions

  • “What are we learning from this?”
  • “What will we do differently next time?”
  • “How do you think we can best move forward with this?”
  • “What are your thoughts on how we can improve this?”
  • Etc.

Such questions - especially when used consistently - build a solution-focus as well as a sense of responsibility and control. Over time, trust levels increase and the team are likely to adopt the use of such questions for themselves.


Advanced Questions

Some questions can be extremely powerful for uncovering blind spots within individual leaders and the wider organisational culture. These are often referred to as “courageous questions” – for good reason! They include questions such as:

“What are we pretending not to know?”

“If I could only ask one question to best understand the Company’s current challenges, what would it be?”

Such questions can elicit very powerful information, and as such they may be best left for professional coaches/facilitators to ask the brave leadership team. These advanced questions will be covered in a separate article to be published in the near future.

I hope this brief introduction to effective questions has been helpful. Please let us know if you would like to further explore this important area of leadership.

In the meantime, what are some of your favourite questions?

Clive Lloyd is an Australian psychologist specialising in Psychological Safety, well-being and mentally- healthy workplaces. He is the director of GYST Consulting Pty Ltd, and developer of the acclaimed Care Factor Program.


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