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Preventative questions

Preventive and Supportive Questions

Issue 127, September 21, 2023

Chances are when things go wrong it’s because of poor communication. You’d think that we would have figured out by now how to communicate with each other effectively. All the strategy in the world goes down the tubes if you can’t speak it.  And managing a team starts and stops with listening and communicating clearly and empathetically.

The biggest landmine?  Asking questions.  Do it wrong and the conversation comes to a screeching halt. And most of us are not conscious of doing it wrong. We’ve established our style and we’re sticking with it.

So, we’re going to explore some of the more subtle, nuanced aspects of asking questions in the hope that we can become better communicators.

Preventive Questions

This may be a new one for you. And we’re all guilty of it from time to time. A preventive question implies judgment, bias, and power.  It prevents an open exchange and puts the speaker in a defensive position.  Here’s how it works: A sales rep is explaining sales goals for the upcoming quarter to her manager.  She is excited about potential new clients and is projecting a 15% lift in sales. The manager looks at her and says directly, “How are you going to deliver on your projections?” On the surface, it looks fairly straightforward as a question. However, the implicit bias underneath the question is that the manager doesn’t believe his sales rep can reach her goals. If you think about it, in truth the manager actually doesn’t believe the sales rep can deliver, and because of his communication style, the rep immediately becomes defensive and discouraged.

How could the manager ask the question differently? By using a high-gain collaborative approach, the question could support the sales rep and motivate her to achieve her goals.  It is stupidly simple: “How can we achieve your goals?”  Or “How can we help you achieve your goals?” Or “What resources do you need to achieve your goals?” These are supportive questions.

Judgment Calls

Another way to frame preventive questions is to understand them as judgment questions. This approach communicates accusation, criticism, and hostility.  Here are just a few examples:

  • What about this plan is realistic?
  • How can you justify your strategy?
  • What could be more important than getting here on time?

According to Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits, a four-step DUAL plan can keep preventive questions in check.

  • Don’t pass judgment: That’s a one-way form of communication
  • Understand: Listen, practice mindfulness and be empathetic
  • Accept: Differences in opinions are hard, but don’t get stuck in a biased mindset
  • Love: Ok, this is a little prosaic, but the idea is to focus on the value that comes from a different perspective


This is going to be a hard one for us because our first reaction to any request or question is “Why?” From our perspective, “why” provides context and relevance. But guess what? In many cases, according to S.J. Scott, “’Why did you do that?’ doesn’t actually inquire as to the reasons for an individual’s behavior. Instead, the purpose behind the question is to accuse.” Author Will Wise adds, “While ‘why’ is considered an open-ended question, it does not elicit powerful and fresh answers. “Why” questions actually create defensive and scripted responses. Think about the times when someone asked you questions like these:

  • Why were you late?
  • Why did you do that?
  • Why are you wearing that?

What did you feel like? Most often, people feel defensive. When you have been asked these kinds of questions, do you feel the need to defend why you are late, explain your reason for doing something, or justify your choice of clothes?”

In these cases, “why” produces the opposite intended results. The response may be rote, insincere, or outright misinformation as a defense mechanism to deflect the question.

Wise suggests replacing “why” with “what” or “how.” This approach immediately shifts the conversation to be inclusive. So, by example “Why did you complete that so fast?” becomes “How did you complete that so fast?” Or put it in the passive tense, “How was that completed so fast?” which removes any personal judgment.

Supportive, High-Gain Questions

In linguistics, high-gain questions are open-ended. Think about it this way: Supportive questions seek to elicit the most valuable information by being thought-provoking. The conversation is based on thinking more deeply about the response. And think like a child!  Most children ask metaphysical questions that usually stump their parents: “Why is the sky blue?” for example. Journalist Warren Berger explains, “In a time when so much knowledge is all around us, answers are at our fingertips, we need great questions in order to be able to know what to do with all that information and find our way to the next answer.”

And that leads us to the art of asking the right questions. A wrong question is one that you already know the answer to. It is rhetorical. And often, wrong questions are asked to project personal power or a superior sense of knowledge. That’s when ego gets in the way.

A right question, on the other hand, is “any question that enlivens you, comes from a place of honest curiosity and helps you organize your thinking about what you don’t know,” according to Berger. Professors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John state, “The good news is that by asking the right questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence, which in turn makes us better questioners — a virtuous cycle,” as reported by Big Think.

Organizational psychologist Tijs Besieux writes in the HBR “A great question should demonstrate that you’re thoroughly prepared for the conversation. A great question also illustrates the expertise you bring to the table, without showing it off. And most importantly, a great question invites others to deepen or broaden their thinking, and challenge held beliefs.” A positive outcome of supportive questions is trust and loyalty.

The Art of Asking Questions

Practically speaking, anyone can learn or retrain themselves to ask questions that are supportive. Tony Gambill writes in Forbes that good questions are predicated on understanding, not judgment. As we have mentioned judgment is a conversation closer. To repeat, asking open-ended questions often reveals surprising results. Follow-up questions dig deeper and build mutual respect. Paraphrase and use closed-ended questions (with a yes or a no) to provide clarity, alignment, and agreement. And conversation balance ensures that each party has equal representation.

And finally, the art of asking great questions also includes silence. Gambill suggests “Resisting the need to fill the gaps in the conversation gives the other person time to reveal more thoughtful and meaningful information. Too often, our insecurity with silence stops us from allowing our conversation partners to build, reflect, and construct their entire response. We get too impatient and miss the good stuff. To be effective, you must learn to ask a question, wait for their response, listen to their response, and then wait some more. The person may need time to reflect on their thoughts before providing their best answers.”

Surveys and Queries

Organizations often create surveys, interview questions and other forms of query without reflection on how their questions may be received. A question of “please select from the following” with a limited set of answers, forces the respondent to make only one choice from those provided. There is a compulsion to comply and answer the question, even though the choices may not directly relate to the thoughts, feelings or experiences of the respondent.

So, for the inquirer, the answer you receive is the one you wanted, and that may not be reflective of reality and will surely lead an organization to comprised decision-making. It is manipulative, misleading, and dangerous.  Garbage in, garbage out.

Here’s another question, often used in performance reviews and interviews: “What are your weaknesses?” That question may immediately make the respondent defensive, insecure or anxious. Yes, none of us is perfect and we all have weaknesses, but as the speaker, consider what happens to the emotional state of the respondent through the rest of the interview. And what do you really want to know? The hack to that question that many of us have mastered is to twist it around and confidently say, “My weaknesses are also my strengths.” Then proceed to control the answer with positive information.

The Last Two Words

There is a highly effective way to make questions – and conversation – a win for both sides. Susan Gilman, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan produced research that states switching from the pronoun “I” to “we” or “you” will change how people perceive what you say and the point you’re trying to make. She found that it even affects how you perceive things. “It can make you a more compelling speaker, and even help you connect better with customers and employees.” She adds, “When you use the word ‘you,’ it expresses a universal truth and something that happens to everyone. Switching from ‘I’ to ‘you’ or ‘we’ can have a powerful effect on your own psyche as well.”

Switching from “I” to “we” or “you” automatically invites us to consider other points of view says Gilman.  She adds, “In this way, human languages provide a relatively effortless mechanism for reframing experience from personal and isolated, to general and shared with others.” That is supportive communication and a goal to achieve for all of us!

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