Four Questions To Not Ask

By Mary Verstraete

Journalist and innovation expert Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideasillustrates that one of the most powerful forces for igniting change in business and in our daily lives is a simple, under-appreciated tool—one that has been available to us since childhood.

Questioning—deeply, imaginatively, “beautifully”.

These kinds of questions help us identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and pursue fresh opportunities.

Questions are undoubtedly important! But how you question is critical. Questions can be engaging and motivating, but they can just as easily be used to blame and can shift the environment from engaging to defensive.

What are some specific questions to avoid? Based on Berger’s conversations with a pioneer of Appreciate InquiryDavid Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve University and several other leadership experts, he gives four examples of very common questions leaders ask that can have the unintended effect of leading people in the wrong direction. With simple tweaks, the same questions can be used to engage people, rather than discourage them.

  • “What’s the problem?” Leaders may often find themselves asking this question or some variation of it. Cooperrider says: What’s the problem, what’s going wrong, what is broken, what is our biggest threat–is, unfortunately, the starting point of 80% of meetings in management.

He maintains that if a leader asks questions that are consistently focused on problems and weaknesses, then the organization overall will tend to be fixated on that—rather than focusing on strengths and opportunities. Instead of inquiring about what’s gone wrong or focusing on “the problem,” it’s better to use positive questions geared to leveraging strengths and achieving goals: What are we doing well and how might we build upon that? What is the ideal outcome and how do we get closer to that?

“We live in the world our questions create,” says Cooperrider. He suggests that questions focusing on strengths and using positive language are far more beneficial than questions with a negative focus.

  • “Whose fault is it?” This question focuses attention on finding a scapegoat when in reality, there is usually plenty of blame to go around for any failure or problem. Keith Yamashita, of the SY Partners consultancy, says that when leaders ask about fault, they’re often trying to shift blame away from themselves. A better approach would be to ask, How can we work together to shore up any weaknesses? This question identifies weak links and areas in need of improvement without focusing on blame.
  • “Why don’t you do it this way?” This question may seem like a mere suggestion, but when asked by a leader, it’s truly a leading question—a way of imposing the leader’s ways on others. Leadership expert, Mary Jo Asmus, with Aspire Collaborative Services says that asking leading questions such as, How about if you do it this way?  is just a stealth form of control. She maintains that if a leader has hired well, he/she shouldn’t have to control how the work gets done. Better to allow people to figure out their ideas and approaches, though you can sometimes help them along by asking, How were you thinking of doing it? What do you have in mind?
  • “Haven’t we tried this already?” Another way of asking this is, Why do you think this would work when it hasn’t worked before? It’s not that a leader shouldn’t raise questions about proposed strategies—especially if something similar has been tried previously—but the tone is important. Phil Kessler chair at Vistage International, a leadership group for chief executives, points out that this version of the question comes off as condescending and even defeatist. It seems to suggest that everything has been thought of already, and that because something was tried once and didn’t work, it should never be considered again. This fails to recognize that some ideas may have come up short in the past because of bad timing or poor execution, not because the idea itself was wrong. Better to ask, If we tried this now, what would be different this time—and how might that change the results?

Berger states that looking beyond this list of specific questions, there are other tests you can use to assess whether the question on the tip of your tongue is a good one.

  1. In general, a leader should avoid questions asked in a spirit of advocacy instead of inquiry, Tim Ogilvie of the management consultancy Peer Insight.
  2. Steer clear of questions that come across like a parent talking to a child, Kessler, Vistage International.
  3. And lastly, Dan Rockwell of the blog Leadership Freak adds, Never ask a question if you don’t want an answer.

From the tips suggested, what questions can you ask questions that will be more beneficial in your relationships on the job, with your family, and your friendships?