Collaborative Coaching: The Importance of Questions

Despite popular opinion, leadership is not about knowing all the answers. It is about knowing what questions to ask and carefully listening to those answers.

Questioning, if done correctly, can inspire, motivate and empower an organization. It encourages teamwork, spurs innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, builds relationships, bolsters accountability, and helps align the different perspectives of an organization to create a shared focus. For these reasons and more, one of the main aims of Collaborative Coaching is to develop a culture where asking questions is expected, safe and even desired.

Supervisors bear the responsibility of creating a questioning climate, which is an environment where employees feel safe asking and being asked questions and where questioning becomes as easy as breathing. This allows employees at all levels to learn and think critically. It provides opportunities for individuals to offer new insights and ideas for improvements and solutions.

Innovations happen when people see things differently.

In addition, a questioning culture is not one where only leaders ask questions. Everyone is encouraged to question one another.  The freedom to ask questions helps to build solid teams, increases employee motivation, and helps staff accept ownership of the solutions they have uncovered.

Creating a questioning culture is a large undertaking that moves the organizational mindset from telling to asking.

The following strategies can assist in this endeavor:

  • Start at the top: Continuously search for opportunities to ask questions. This models good questioning behavior and will help erode the view that leaders’ roles are to provide information and have all the answers.
  • Create an environment that enables people to challenge the status quo, take risks and ask more questions.
  • Connect questioning to the organization’s values and processes.
  • Build questioning into as many activities as possible, even if the information is potentially unwelcome.
  • Report and appreciate questioners.
  • Promote risk taking and tolerate mistakes.
  • Encourage dialogue at all levels in the organization.
  • Allow people the freedom to adopt a questioning style of work on their own.
  • Encourage problem solving.

Good questions are not:

  • Focused on why the person did not or cannot succeed
  • Intended to assign blame
  • Hinting or searching for a specific answer
  • Closed-ended
  • Confusing to the answerer
  • Asked as a set of multiple inquiries


Ask: How have sales been going?
Instead of: Did you make your sales goal this month?

Ask: You said there are difficulties between you and a
coworker; what do you think caused these difficulties?
Instead of: Why can’t you get along with your coworker?

Ask: Which of these objectives do you think will be the easiest to accomplish? Which will be
the most difficult?
Instead of: What is the problem with this project?

In addition to asking questions, supervisors must be aware of their own mindset. It is important to come from a place of learning, rather than judging. A leader who asks questions is less fixated on responsibility and more open to new possibilities and finding solutions.

It is also helpful to focus on what went well, what else could be done, and how could it be improved. Focusing on what might be rather than what is not is critical to individual and organizational development and growth.  When supervisors “frame” a questioning session and let employees know that they are questioning to learn and are upfront with the purpose of the conversation, it sets minds at ease and allows for true dialogue to begin.

Questions can have a variety of purposes, but they all boil down to providing information, fostering communication, building teams, and solving problems.

Below are several categories of purposes that questions might have.


  • How can I help you?
  • What would you do?
  • What would someone else do?
  • How do you feel about that?

Learning and Career Development:

  • How do you learn best?
  • How did you foster your own development?
  • What were the most challenging and exciting career development opportunities that you have experienced?
  • What made them challenging and exciting?

From Problem to Action

  • What else can you tell me to more fully describe your concerns?
  • What are the consequences of this problem?
  • What is a viable alternative?
  • What are your goals?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages you see in this suggestion?

Progress Update

  • How is the report coming along?
  • What questions do you have about the project?
  • Tell me about the information you may need for your project?
  • What have you found challenging about the project?
  • How is the plan we created working for you?

To Build Teams:

  • How has this problem affected us?
  • How can we improve our communication and collaboration?
  • How can we bring our different views together?
  • What else would anyone like to add? Are we missing any input?
  • What other ideas can we generate?
  • How has this session/meeting gone?

Shape Strategy and Enable Change

  • What does the future look like if we continue running as planned?
  • How can we make sure we stay on track?
  • What do we want people to focus on now?
  • What limitations are we placing on thinking, planning or actions?
  • How can we better serve our customers?
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