The impact of (the right) questions

Andrea Schüller on April 12, 2015

“I can always tell how experienced and insightful a prospective consultant, banker, or lawyer is by the quality of their questions and how intently they listen.” This is a quote from a CEO, which Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas use to pitch an entire book focused on ‘Power Questions’ (2012, John Wiley & Sons).

Those who don’t (yet) know better push information at others, hoping that they ‘get it’. Seasoned experts use ‘pull’ tactics: they ask, facilitate and co-create solutions.

Coaching is a profession built entirely on the power of questions. The most successful coaches are those whose questions will intrigue their coachees, getting them to be fascinated by the issue they brought to the conversation, rather than annoyed at not having conquered it yet. Line managers who’d like to ‘coach’ their people are typically keen to learn how this is done.

We think, we know all about questions. After all, we ask them all the time. Yet there is a huge difference between questions that require information to be shared (“When does the meeting start?” “What’s the agenda?” “What do we need to achieve?”) and questions that get others to really think (“How can we stop ‘hoping’?” “How will we know that we’re the team we want to be? What exactly will we say, do, or feel, that we don’t just now?”) Good questions are pathways to good and, ideally, novel thoughts.

Facts about questions that are common knowledge – yet not common practice

  • A question is all the more powerful, the more it gets the respondent to
    • Feel listened to (as the question references something he said/implied)
    • Look at an issue from an angle he doesn’t normally go to (“How would X – who is very different in style and personality from the coachee, yet held in high regard by him – go about this?”)
    • Follow a path of inquiry he’s intrigued by (“What does it take for you to feel you’ve done enough?” “When have you ever said ‘no’ and felt it enhanced, rather than damaged your reputation?”)


  • The twin-sister of the open question is the pause. This is as logical as it is difficult. Because to the person asking the question, the time between asking it and getting the answer can be incredibly long. And awkward. Worry sets in: was that a daft question? Not clear? Did I overstep a mark?
    • Most likely you didn’t. Good answers – those resulting from fresh thinking – aren’t immediate. Give them time.
    • If you babble on (typically with the best of intentions), you lose the answer and some credibility as a questioner.
    • So, just look at them. Intently. Cultivate fascination with what your counterpart will say – next. Get ready to deal with whatever does come by way of an answer. Don’t judge. Tune into his way of thinking.


  • The single biggest mistake in asking questions is implying you understand, having just heard the first level of an answer. It’s a reflex. We want to show that we’re switched on. At best, however, this leads to quick, superficial fixes. If it were that simple, they wouldn’t need you. Keep asking.
    • “What does most keep you from doing …?” “I just don’t take the time to …”. Don’t go: “How can you make the time?” Instead, keep asking:
    • “Has there ever been a situation where you did take the time to … ? What was the result of that? Or: What do you assume will happen, if you take more time?


  • If in doubt, stick with “Say some more …?” – Three of the most powerful words in the English language – if (!) you truly want to hear it.


  • Know that your job is to help the other person think for themselves, not to think for them (the ultimate example of that is a question like “Don’t you think it would help you, to …?”, or even the smoother “Have you ever tried to do this: …?”). Resist the urge to be clever.
  • Just to be clear: giving tips is fine. Just don’t camouflage them as questions. Separate exploration from tips and wait what they came up with themselves before you wade in.
  • A simple success measure of how you’re doing on the questioning front: the issue owner needs to speak far more than you (watch out though: research suggests that we tend to feel a conversation is balanced 50/50 when we actually hog 80% of the airtime)

Until soon – Andrea

PS: I am curious: What impactful questions have you been asked?