The Art of a Good Question

By Greg Nathan posted February 9, 2024

One day at school, Mr Plunket, our history teacher, looked at me thoughtfully. He then said I should study philosophy. I wasn't sure if this was a compliment or a put-down as I didn't know what philosophy was. On reflection, it was probably a well-meant suggestion prompted by my persistent habit of asking questions.

If you have sat with me in any type of meeting, big or small, you may have noticed I like to ask questions. My wife has tried unsuccessfully over the years to cure this habit, as it has occasionally gotten me into trouble. But generally, my incessant curiosity has served me well. 

However, there are some principles for asking a good question. One of these is timing. Get this wrong and things can go awry, as I discovered in a workshop I attended on coaching skills.

The workshop leader who exploded

The presenter was sharing some strong opinions, and my curiosity was particularly aroused when he said that he did not believe in goal setting. I thought it was an unusual statement that was inconsistent with my personal experience. I looked around the room expecting someone to ask for clarification. When it was apparent no one was going to say anything, I put up my hand and interjected. "I can't help it. I have to ask. Why do you not believe in goal setting?"

To my surprise and our collective embarrassment, he glared at me and bellowed, "Yes you can help it!" After an uneasy pause, he returned to his discourse as though nothing had happened. While it was a reasonable question, my timing was clearly off.

Despite these occasional awkward situations, people generally thank me for asking questions or for putting to voice what they were thinking. I am also often asked how I come up with my questions. So for what it's worth, here is the process I use when I'm at my best.

4 steps to crafting a good question

Firstly I get clear on my purpose. Do I want to understand something in particular about the topic, the group or the person I am talking to? Or do I want to contribute to the meeting in some way? I have found this positive intention to be extremely important.

Secondly, I listen carefully to what people are saying. I also take notes which helps me to engage with the content. If something doesn't make sense, I consider whether the point is an important one. I am a reasonably good reader of body language so, if I am in a larger meeting, I look to see if others seem confused. If they do, I check my motives. Will asking a question help me achieve my purpose? And do I genuinely want to better understand the issue for my own or others' benefit? In other words, am I trying to improve or prove myself. This is the essence of the Growth Mindset. (For more on this check FRI’s latest blog). 

Then I ask myself, "What do you want to know?" A good question will usually flow and I try to make it as brief and specific as possible. Often it's as simple as, "Could you please explain what you mean by ....?" or "Could you tell us a little more about...." This type of question will also help you avoid being one of those terrible people who, rather than asking a question, subject everyone in the audience to a monologue on how clever they are.

Now I'm prepared with my question so, when the opportunity arises, like being asked,  "Does anyone have a question?" I can jump right in. This helps avoid those awkward silences. As I learned from my experience of being yelled at, timing is a key consideration. So if I want to ask a question when I haven't yet been invited, I ask myself, "Is this important and urgent enough to politely interrupt the person or put up my hand? Or can it wait?"

The art of asking good questions is a powerful and useful skill that will enrich your life, and it is a skill that can be learned. We teach this in our field manager bootcamps, in our change management workshops, and in our franchise recruitment training. We even teach it to franchisees to keep town hall meetings and open forums constructive. Not only does asking good questions make meetings more useful and meaningful, it also helps to draw the best out of others.

How a stressed group turned lemons into lemonade

To finish, let me share an example of a question I asked at a recent Summit on psychological safety. There were about 100 of us having coffee and croissants in the foyer of the hotel waiting for the session to start at 9:00am. At 9:15am we were still waiting and it was clear something was not right. Given my curious nature, I peered into the main room. A group of serious-looking people were conferring about problems with the AV. If you’ve organised an event you’ll know how stressful this is.

When the doors finally opened I was impressed that the organising team were all smiling as they welcomed us into the room. Although the AV was still not working, they adapted, and instead of presenting slides they made the session more interactive.

The presenter, Dr David Rock, from the NeuroLeadership Institute opened by talking about how the stress response inhibits thinking, performance and creativity. This made me super curious at how they had kept their cool as a team. So when he invited questions, I simply asked, "How did you all manage to stay calm and pleasant when you must have been stressed out about the AV not working?"

David laughed and explained how he and his team had used a few of the techniques they teach such as reframing the situation to look at the positives (for instance everyone got to network a bit longer), to be patient and kind with each other, and to use humour as a way of diffusing the tension. He then made a point of thanking me for a fantastic question! (By the way, you can see some of my takeouts from the Summit in this LinkedIn post.)

Until next time, I encourage you to practice the art of crafting good questions.

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