Questions, like most tools, can be used correctly or incorrectly.  A hammer used on a nail or on a screw is still a hammer; however, in most circumstances, we would debate the effectiveness of the hammer when used to insert a screw.  Questions are no different than our proverbial hammer.  Used well they can generate information or shape behavior; used incorrectly they can generate misinformation and friction. When questions are used for coaching and mentoring there are a number of poor practices that should be avoided:

  1. Actively listen to the answer.  Really listening generates a connection between the parties in the conversation.  Listening also helps to ensure you don’t appear stupid if you don’t listen to the answer.  How many times have you heard someone ask the same question again because they weren’t really listening?  It is infuriating.
  2. If you don’t want to hear the answer, don’t ask the question.  This is a corollary to listening, but far darker.  Note: Not wanting to listen to an answer is different than being afraid of the answer.
  3. Don’t expect or imply exposition if you ask yes/no questions.  Some questioners will ask a yes/or no question and then expect the person answering the question to keep going or worse jump to a conclusion about why the person answered the question the way they did.  If you want more, ask why.
  4. Try not to talk when in moments of silence.  Silence is a questioner’s friend (but a really insightful answer is his or her best friend).  After the person answering the question stops talking continue listening. Nature abhors both a vacuum and silence; if you don’t fill the silence the person answering the question will read silence as a signal that you want them to continue.
  5. Don’t go out of your way to irritate the person you are talking with.  Most coaching and mentoring are scenarios should not be patterned after aggressive television or radio interview shows.  Spectacle, while interesting entertainment, will not help someone you are coaching or mentoring to have an epiphany and many cause them to withdraw.
  6. It’s not about YOU! You are asking someone else what they know, think or feel.  What you know, think, or feel might be useful scripting or phrasing the question, your goal is not to put your words in their mouth.  Be very careful that how you ask a question does not cause a specific answer unless you are trying to make that happen.  This form of questioning is very prevalent in legal proceedings (go listen to an actual court case — not Law and Order), but is far less useful during an agile retrospective.  
  7. Rhetorical questions aren’t really questions. Rhetorical questions are a great presentation device but are really statements representing what the person using them believes.  They are useful for establishing a line in the sand and then daring the listener to cross the line.  An example of a rhetorical question asked by George Carlin was, “Isn’t it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do ‘practice’?” A great tool to make a statement, but not useful to elicit an open conversation.

When I go out to mow the lawn, I rarely bring my hammer with me.  I do bring my lawnmower, headphones, and a large screwdriver (for popping weeds out the lawn – pretty darn effective). Using the right tool for the right mission increases effectiveness and efficiency.  Using the right questions and using the right questions in the right way have the same effect!   

Other entries in the Asking Question Theme:

Asking Questions: A Coach’s Super Power or Kryptonite

Asking Questions: Many Types of Questions

Asking Questions: Hints for Improving Your Question Making Skills