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Are your questions the problem – How good are your asking skills?

Updated on July 13, 2014

Questions – The power tools of business

Questions are the power tools of business. They help elicit information, generate ideas, foster breakthroughs and solve problems. Without asking questions we just won’t be able to navigate the business world.

While asking questions is easy, asking powerful questions is not. Consider these questions.

Can we or can we not increase our sales next month?

What can we do to increase sales by 30% next month?

The first question is ambiguous, seeks confirmation or denial and leaves no scope for respondent to provide any other information that can be useful in the situation. The second question is open, completely changes the focus from enquiry to ideation. It fosters dialogue and search for solutions.

What are powerful questions?

The second question is an example of a powerful question. It is unambiguous, encourages response and will provide the questioner the information that is sought.

Asking powerful questions is not something that comes naturally to us but it is a skill that can be acquired. Once acquired, it can be a very potent skill.

Powerful questions, like a focused laser, cut through confusion and illuminate whatever area of enquiry they are directed at. According to Terry Fadem, author of “The Art of Asking”, powerful questions are those that are meaningful, impactful and match the reality of the situation. In addition, the questioner makes it clear why the question is being asked and knows what to do with the response.

Powerful questions are positive in their intent. They are not critical or judgemental. They are mostly open ended and encourage the respondent to open up, rather than become defensive.

Question Quotient – A measure of your asking skills

Just as IQ or Intelligence Quotient is a measure of intelligence, Question Quotient is a measure of asking skills. People with a high question quotient can come up with powerful questions in any given situation

Take these two simple exercises to test your asking skills.

Exercise 1 – Choosing the right question in a given situation.

You are given three situations and a choice of questions in each situation. Choose the one that you feel is the most appropriate. Then check your choice against the best question at the end of this section.

Situation 1:

Tom’s sales team has lost another sale to competition. This is hurting his business and he wants to address the problem quickly. He calls the sales manager for a review and asks:

  1. We are losing business consistently, what kind of a low performing sales team do you have?
  2. Your team is losing business because they hardly give any product demonstrations. Don’t you think so?
  3. I know we have a capable sales team that can perform much better. What do you think we could do to win more orders?

Situation 2:

One of Lisa’s high performing employee, Shania, has decided to leave the company. Lisa want to see if she can make Shania reconsider and stay. Lisa meets her and asks:

  1. Do you really want to leave and throw away all the good work you have done?
  2. I know you have made up your mind to leave but do you know what you are giving up by leaving your job?
  3. I respect your decision. I am keen to work with you to address any issues that may have lead you to resign. What would need to change for you to reconsider your decision?

Situation 3:

Mohan has not received the promotion that he felt he deserved. He wants to know what he can do to improve his chances for a promotion next time. He decides to have a conversation with his manager. In his meeting with him he asks:

  1. May I know why have I been ignored despite having performed well?
  2. Can you tell me why you think I am not good enough to be promoted?
  3. I know I have not been promoted and I want to make sure I improve on my shortcomings and be a strong contender next time. Can you let me know the areas where you feel I came up short?

Suggested Response


  1. This is not a question but veiled criticism. It is deprecating and would make the sales manager defensive. No improvement will result from this dialogue
  2. This is better than A in that Tom is suggesting a solution, but it leaves no room for exploring other areas for improvement. The solution would lack ownership from the sales team.
  3. This is the best response. It sends a strong signal to the sales manager that Tom trusts him and his team. It encourages him to explore ideas for improvement. It sends out a signal that Tom and he are partners in solving this problem


  1. Lisa is passing a judgement on her employee. The message she is giving is that Shania would be stupid to give up this job. Instead of reconsidering, this simply make Shania defensive and stick to her decision
  2. This is better than A as Lisa acknowledges Shania’s decision but she is again questioning Shania’s judgement. It will make Shania defensive and prevent any further possibility of a dialogue.
  3. This is the best response. It sends a message that Lisa respects Shania’s decision and that she wants to make a genuine attempt to address the factors that have led her to resign. There is a high possibility that Shania will open up and discuss what made her come to the decision. Lisa can then try and address the key issues.

Situation 3:

  1. This question is veiled blame that Mohan’s manager has ignored a good performer. It will make Mohan’s manager become defensive, instead of telling him where he can improve.
  2. This is a better question as there is a clear ask for the reasons behind the manager’s decision. However, its tone may be construed as critical. This will put his manager on the defensive.
  3. This is the best response. Mohan provides the context of his question. The question does not assign blame on Mohan’s manager and gives him an opportunity to clarify his expectations and explore areas for Mohan’s improvement.

Exercise 2 – Asking a better question

Here’s another simple exercise to test your asking skills. Think of a better question in place of the four questions given below. Check you answer with the suggested questions below

Q. Why haven’t you finished the proposal till now?

Q. Did you check with me before approving the request?

Q. Can we do something to improve the sales next month?

Q. Why do you always end up making mistakes in your report?

The Better Question

Q. Why haven’t you finished the proposal till now?

Better Question: What is keeping you from finishing this proposal on time?

Q. Did you check with me before approving the request?

Better Question: What caused you to deviate from the standard approval process?

Q. Can we do something to improve the sales next month?

Better Question: What would it take to increase sales by 30% next month?

Q. Why do you always end up making mistakes in your report?

Better Question: Can you come up with ideas on improving the accuracy of your report?

Resources to develop your asking skills

Check out the list below for some great resources to build your asking skills

  1. “The Art of Asking” by Terry Fadem
  2. “Leading with Questions” by Michael Marquardt
  3. “Coaching Questions” by Tony Stoltzfus
  4. “Critical Thinking” by Brook Noel Moore and Richard Parker
  5. “A More Beautiful Question” By Warren Berger (
  6. “Change your questions, change your life” by Marilee Adams


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