Critical Conversations: The Importance of Good Questions

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Asking good questions is a skill that is often neglected. Unfortunately, this means that managers often ask poor questions, ask too many questions, talk too much, do not actively listen, and shy away from being honest and direct. Good questions stimulate insight, raise awareness, provoke reflection, and lead to better answers and, often, a clearer understanding of why one answer is better than others. Take this standard coaching question, for example, “What’s the question you know you should be asking, but haven’t?”

Asking good questions can transform a conversation about careers and succession planning from a simple discourse between mentor and mentee about career choices to a strategic staff planning session. Consider the contrast between the following questions about succession planning:

  • “Is he ready to be promoted?” compared with “What would help her to contribute much more where she is?” 
  • “Who could fill this role in six months’ time?” compared with “Why do we need this role at all? Is it time to rethink it?” 
  • “Which box does she belong in on our Org Chart?” compared with “Why would anyone that talented stay with this company?”

The change in focus is clearly evident—it shifts from technical, surface level dialogue to strategic dialogue that explores a wide range of options and has the potential to address different scenarios.
Some simple ways to become more adept at crafting good questions include:

  • Notice when questions you ask have strong impact. Compare it to the criteria above. 
  • Ask fewer questions. This allows you to focus on the quality of the questions you ask. 
  • When you reflect upon a coaching or mentoring conversation, think about the questions you asked. Could you have asked them in a more powerful way? Consider other powerful questions you could have asked. 
  • Build your own list of good questions

For more advice, check out the latest issue of TD at Work, “5 Critical Conversations to Talent Development.” In this issue, you will find seven levels of conversation that lead to deeper dialogue, case studies of conversations in practice, sample questions to promote dialogue, strategies for supporting critical conversation, and guidance for preparing for and assessing developmental conversations.

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About the Author

Julie Haddock-Millar is a consultant in the fields of talent management, mentoring, and coaching. She is senior lecturer and senior teaching fellow in human resource management and development at Middlesex University Business School. She leads on the development international standards in mentoring and coaching programs for the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.

About the Author

David Clutterbuck is a visiting professor in the coaching and mentoring faculties of three UK universities (Oxford Brookes, Sheffield Hallam, and York St John) and adjunct faculty at Ashridge. He cofounded the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, which collaborates with ICF in the Global Coaching and Mentoring Alliance. The author or co-author of 65 books, he is practice lead for Coaching & Mentoring International.

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