Running an “Action Learning” set recently, I was reminded once again of how difficult participants sometimes find it to ask appropriate questions, particularly at the start of the process. At the end of the first day, that is typically one of the learning points. Participants understand the principle well enough: that the kinds of questions that are helpful in this context are questions that are designed to help the problem-owner think differently about the problem, in the hope that some insight may arise; as opposed to questions designed to help the questioner understand the problem better, or questions that are actually suggestions, posing as questions.
For example, questions such as How many people are involved in this? will not help the problem-owner at all. He or she already knows this – it adds nothing to his or her understanding. It merely helps the questioner understand the issue more clearly. And underlying that is the strong drive in the questioner to try to help by solving the problem.
And that leads onto the second type of inappropriate question: How would they react if you…? Clearly, that is, in fact, a suggested solution.
So, why are such questions inappropriate? Because they do not help the problem-owner to think differently about the problem and gain new insight. Rather, they spring from a strong habit of hands-on problem solving.
And, as I say, participants in new Learning Sets generally understand this, once we discuss it; but frequently they still find it difficult not to ask such questions; even though, as problem owners, they also recognise that the high-value questions are of another type altogether, such as What are your blind spots about this issue?
It is not surprising, of course, that they are still learning the ropes at the first meeting of the Set. And, generally, by the second meeting, they are getting better at formulating appropriate questions; but it is very interesting to see how deeply ingrained the problem-solving approach to helping is, even in senior leaders. However, my belief is that if they want to get the very best out of their people, questions that develop their staff’s ability to think for themselves, rather than be led to solutions by their bosses, are actually very valuable.
Andrew Scott is an independent facilitator and coach, working principally in Higher Education. His work is particularly informed by Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment, his own Shifting Stories approach, his wide and eclectic reading, and his philosophy that individuals matter.