What makes a great question?


Part of the art of being a great listener is also being able to ask great questions. After all, it’s easier to listen attentively if the speaker is telling you what you want to know!

I could put questions in 3 categories:

1. The information question
2. The opinion question
3. The coaching question

The information question is one that simply asks for facts. For example, ‘Where do you work?’ ‘Who is your boss?’ or ‘Where are you eating dinner tonight?’ This kind of thing may seem trivial, but it’s important to recognise that if you just want facts, you have to ask a straightforward question. It’s no good asking you if you like working with your boss if really I just want to know his or her name. The information question requests someone to retrieve information from memory, nothing more.

The opinion question is one that might take a bit of thought before it can be answered. I might ask, ‘What do you think is the best way to run a team meeting?’ or, ‘How much of your available budget are you prepared to invest in your team’s development?’ or, ‘Who is the most likely person to take over your role when you move on?’

An opinion question invites the other person to consider a range of information and conjecture about the big picture. Their answer is based in fact, but relies on their own subjective judgement as well.  Most people will want to think a little before answering this type of question.

The coaching question is one that has an impact on the other person’s perception of a situation. Simply by asking the question, we open up new possibilities. An example of this might be, ‘What are you assuming is not possible, that might in fact be the answer?’ or, ‘How would you know if that was not true?’ or, ‘I know you can’t do that, but if you could do it, how long would it take?’

These are not just verbal gymnastics. This kind of question will actually change the other person’s perception. Sometimes it might make a huge difference, sometimes it will just be a subtle shift in mindset. Questions like these invite the other person to consider ideas that have not, until that moment, been a part of their thinking. 

For that reason, a coaching question might require quite a lot of thought before an answer is possible.

The best questions can be identified very easily. The best questions lead to silence…

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