Leadership Solutions from Read Solutions Group: Reach for Questions, not Answers

Friday, June 22, 2007

Reach for Questions, not Answers

A subordinate or colleague gives you a call to share their current problem at work. What do you do? The usual first instinct is to offer a solution - after all, resolving issues is what you're good at, and paid for, isn't it?

Although offering a solution may be the most efficient step to resolving the issue; it may not be the most effective. By offering open-ended questions, you assist in development, open yourself to new ideas and keep yourself from taking on unnecessary work.

Start first by determining what your colleague is seeking. Is she looking for a sympathetic ear, a sounding board, a brainstorming partner, or an answer. You might try such questions as "How can I best help you resolve this?" Or "Would it help if I used some questions to help you clarify your thinking?"

With your role clarified, and your employee or colleague supported and empowered, you can shift to open-ended questions. A useful opening question can be "How long have you been thinking about this?" This question can move your subordinate out of the drama of the current crisis into reflection. You can help create clarity with the simple question "How clear are you about this issue?" Avoid seeking more details about the situation and keep the issue firmly with your subordinate with a follow-on question like "What ideas have you considered for resolving the issue?"

Helping your subordinate clarify their thinking, explore alternatives, evaluate consequences, and lay out the next steps, involve such simple questions as:
  • Can you see any gaps in your thinking?
  • What insights are you having as to your next steps?
  • What are the consequences of going this route?
  • Are you clear about what you are going to do next?
  • How can I best support you?
Refraining throughout from offering your experiences. Use questions to challenge assumptions. Even if you have tried this route before, allow your subordinate the opportunity to try, learn and grow from their own experiences. And teach them the useful practice of the debrief - "Why did this work?" and "What can we learn from what went wrong?".

For more on using questions to develop and support your employees, see


At 8:50 AM, Anonymous Stephanie said...

Nice post!

Here's an article you might enjoy by Dorothy Leeds, author of The 7 Powers of Questions.

It is written for lawyers but has more general application:



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