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People and Change

The power of effective questioning

Neil Hughes Neil Hughes

With the increased shift in organisational focus towards new technologies, we must be sure to not forget about our most important asset, which is our people. When working to understand and connect with our people it is important to know the importance of skilful questions.

Whether it’s as a senior leader, or as a consultant in advisory, the power of questions is not always inherently clear – so write Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John in the Harvard Business Review.

…unlike professionals such as litigators, journalists, and doctors, who are taught how to ask questions as an essential part of their training, few executives think of questioning as a skill that can be honed – or consider how their own answers to questions could make conversations more productive.

Brooks and John explain some key factors holding us back. Egocentrism. Apathy. Overconfidence.  Self-consciousness. But they regard the biggest inhibitor as simply being a lack of understanding as to how beneficial good questioning can be.

Open questions

We want to uncover what our conversational partner really thinks – even if it’s bad news. We are all susceptible to bias, so how can we best mitigate that in others? Start with W-questions: what, where, why, who, how. Closed questions – those starting with “Will you…” or “Don’t you…” – both corral the listener in a direction set by you, and enable a more reluctant conversational partner to give one-word responses. Conversely, open questions are far more exploratory. “What is your biggest concern?”  “How might you solve that?” – these help us avoid bias, agendas and restricting the options of others.

Channel your inner Socrates

“The disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the student to examine ideas and be able to determine the validity of those ideas” - Socrates 

Socratic questioning enables us to challenge others’ assumptions, seek clarity, discover alternative viewpoints, explore implications of beliefs, and to seek supportive evidence. While open in style, they are nonetheless directed. Most of us know what it is like to face a Gatling-gun of questions. We feel more like a guinea pig than a valued colleague. With Socratic questioning, the questioner always has half an eye on where s/he wants to go. Ideas become richer, better thought-out, and reflective.


  • implicit in a question is the statement, “I don’t know.”  It takes the pressure off yourself to have all the answers;
  • as a manager or mentor, asking questions skilfully pushes responsibility towards the conversational partner to develop solutions;
  • in a tough spot, a question gives you time to think and formulate your ideas;
  • a question can act as a fact-check - a handy way to find out if the solution you might have offered was well-founded; and
  • asking questions builds rapport. Relationships are essential in business, and authentic questions enhance them.

We are living through a period of significant change in the way organisations are structured and how our people work on a day-to-day basis. This raises major organisational, leadership and people challenges – at a time when business leaders are already grappling with business, economic and political risks on a global basis. Asking effective questions leads to deeper relationships, more effective strategy, and more sustainable outcomes.  This is why it is at the heart of everything we do in People and Change Consulting at Grant Thornton. Grant Thornton has a dedicated People and Change Consulting team in place to help clients build the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for a changing environment.