Are tough questions good questions?

I am gradually reading through a great book called “The power of making thinking visible.” It is meant to be a guide for teachers who want to improve thinking in the classroom, but it is also a great guide for structures that coaches can use for the same purpose at work.

What follows is me making my own thinking about some concepts in the book – so flaws in the thinking probably represent the maturity of my thinking here rather than a flaw in the content of the book šŸ™‚

One of the ideas hidden in some of the techniques is the idea of asking two types of questions in the classroom:

  • Clarifying questions are designed to help you understand what someone is saying; and
  • Probing questions are designed to help you (but mostly the other person) dig more deeply into things, in order to learn more than has been presented so far.

I think this is a really useful distinction to make in group problem solving and planning too.

I have been starting with clarifying questions in conversations to make sure we are talking about the same thing and then moving to probing questions, to dig deeper once I know enough context to ask something vaguely sensible.

Clarifying questions are generally easier to answer, although I have been surprised how often they flush out assumptions and ambiguity. On the other hand probing questions are harder to answer an people often need time to think while they ponder the answer.

Both types are good questions and both have their place. However there is another point that comes out of reading the book. Both types of question are good BECAUSE they are driven by curiosity.

Without curiosity they are really just distractions from thinking. For example:

  • If the questioner is trying to catch out the responder then it is not about improving shared thinking, it is about power games;
  • If the questioner is asking a leading question, trying to guide the other person to the correct answer, then instead it should be a hint or a suggestion; and
  • If the questions are being asked to impress others in the room then they will be more like an academic game of bingo than a robust conversation.

So I am going to argue that tough, probing questions are great if:

  • The questioner has done enough homework to clarify what is being presented; and
  • The questions are driven by genuine curiosity.

Without these factors in place then what could have been a great question, is likely to inhibit thinking and sharing, rather than improving it.

There is another thing that is important for a great probing question to be effective too and that is the spirit in which it is received.

In order to create a great learning environment in the classroom, teachers put a lot of work into creating both psychological safety and a growth mindset. This environment of mutual trust and learning encourages both good questioning and good thinking as a result of those questions.

Even mediocre questions can add value here and really good questions will generate both great learning and great fun.

So tough questions are not just good questions but actually great questions if:

  • They challenge thinking by probing deeply, based on genuine curiosity and and intent of mutual learning;
  • They are preceded by sufficient clarifying questions to ensure those in the conversation have a shared context for that discussion (they are in the same thought bubble, they are on the same page); and
  • Those in the conversation have psychological safety (they feel safe to challenge and be challenged) AND people approach the conversation with a growth mindset (a focus on learning rather than looking good or winning the argument I guess).

The same question would in fact be a terrible question if it:

  • Was designed for the questioner to sneak in their own view or move the conversation onto their agenda
  • Was not supported by taking the time to clarify what the conversation is about; or
  • Was asked in a room filled with fear.

Sadly I know I have asked some of these terrible questions but happily I think my strike rate has improved by deliberately thinking about the questions I ask.

Well, that is half right, but it is not all about the question you ask, it is about the context and the attitude that support it becoming the right question to ask.

Removing terrible questions should be the goal of every team, as the stakes to play the game of collaboration. Moving to great, tough questioning that generates great conversations and amazing insights is a bit harder and will take some time and practice. Even more time if there is a perceived power imbalance because you are a leader asking others questions or an apprentice asking questions of those more experienced than you.

But the goal of creating the space for tough questions and then using them to really improve your thinking should, in my opinion, be one of the primary goals of an agile (or empowered) team.


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