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The Sideline Blog

Just as sports players come to the sideline for rest and guidance, this blog is meant to provide you some insight and guidance as you explore your Strengths journey.

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  • Writer's pictureChad T. Ahern

Engaging Your People With Better Questions

Have you ever considered that they way you start a question impacts the quality of the answer?

Way back in high school I picked up the moniker "The Why Kid" from my technical theater director. As we would prepare to design & build a theater set I would constantly be in his ear curious about why we were building / painting / decorating it one way and not another. My intention was always to learn and not to undermine, even as some might have taken my questions in a less positive light.

As I've grown as a professional and a coach, I've become more aware that how we phrase questions impacts how we move forward.​

One of the most important changes is moving from "why" questions to "what" questions. In most situations, asking "why" puts people on the defensive. It also forces the respondent to process and relay all the past/possible options, their decision making rationale, and compare the actual results of their decision(s) to the intended result.

Instead, "what" questions allow us to focus on a single attribute at a time. Need some examples?

"Why did you do that," becomes:

  • What inspired you to do that?

  • What factors did you consider?

  • What was the intended outcome?

"Why are you acting that way," becomes:

  • What is bothering you?

  • What can I help you with?

  • What happened?

"Why did you succeed/fail," becomes:

  • What went right?

  • What went wrong?

  • What would you do differently next time?

So what does it matter?

"What" questions allow people to process and reflect on the smaller components of each situation. The smaller the action or decision, the more approachable & manageable it becomes for a person. The smaller, approachable, and manageable an action is, the more likely it is the respondent can see the impact - and (repeatedly) practice making the same or similar actions or decisions in the future.

By relying on "what" questions, you also give yourself - particularly if you're a team leader - the best opportunity to learn and understand how each team member thinks, feels, and behaves. In doing so, you show interest in them and begin to understand their talents. Showing interest and engaging talents are two keys to improve employee engagement.

All by changing just one key word.

What questions do you rely on? Are you ready to start asking different questions?

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