A question of skillful questioning

Asking the right questions in the right way

One of the shorthand ways of explaining what governance focuses on is to say it’s about ‘Doing the right things in the right way’.

This post offers a reflection on one essential aspect of governance, that is used by every director at every meeting. Skillful questioning is not necessarily listed on the range of skills sought when boards devise their skills matrices. Yet, it can make a huge difference to the quality of your board deliberations and organisational effectiveness.

Asking the right questions the right way‘ could therefore be seen as a major element of any good governance skillset.

Knowing your question rationale

As a director, you ask questions for many purposes. Some of the most common include:

  • Gathering information: to learn about a person, place, thing, or event.
  • Clarifying understanding: to make sure you understand something correctly.
  • Checking comprehension: to see if someone has understood what you said.
  • Making a request: to ask someone to do something or provide you with something.
  • Expressing interest: to show that you are interested in what someone is saying or doing.
  • Building rapport: to establish a relationship with someone by showing interest in them.
  • Challenging or testing: to challenge someone’s ideas, beliefs, or opinions.
  • Problem-solving: to find solutions to a problem by gathering information and exploring different options.
  • Decision-making: to weigh the pros and cons of different options and make an informed decision.
  • Persuasion: to convince someone to take a certain course of action.
  • Negotiation: to reach a mutually beneficial agreement through discussion and compromise.
  • Conflict resolution: to resolve a disagreement or find a common ground.
  • Self-reflection: to reflect on your own thoughts, feelings, or experiences.
  • Personal growth: to gain insight into yourself and make positive changes.

(See also the Header chart above.)

Choosing your question style and format

Directors are likely to use a variety of question types in order to gather information, make decisions, and ensure that the board meeting is productive and efficient. Examples include:

  • Prioritisation questions: These are used to identify the most important issues or prioritise tasks. For example, “Which of these initiatives should we focus on first?”
  • Decision-making questions: These are questions that are used to make decisions and reach conclusions. For example, “Do we have a consensus on this proposal?”
  • Open-ended questions: These are questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. They are used to encourage discussion and to gather information. For example, “What are the potential implications of this proposal for our company?”
  • Clarifying questions: These are questions that are used to better understand the information that has been presented. For example, “Can you explain in more detail what you mean by this?”
  • Probing questions: These are questions that are used to delve deeper into a particular issue or to uncover more information. For example, “What evidence do you have to support that claim?”
  • Hypothetical questions: These are questions that explore potential outcomes or scenarios, and are useful for both strategy and risk discussions. For example, “What would happen if we were to adopt this proposal?”
  • Fact-finding questions: These are questions that are used to gather specific information or data. For example, “What is the current market share for our product?”
  • Hypothetical questions: These questions ask about a hypothetical situation or scenario. They are often used to explore possibilities, make a point, or test someone’s reasoning. Examples include “What would you do if…?” and “How would you solve this problem if…?”
  • Socratic questions: These questions are used to encourage critical thinking and to promote a deeper understanding of a subject. They are named after the philosopher Socrates, who used this method to encourage his students to think for themselves. Examples include “How do we know that…?”
  • Research questions: These questions are used in research projects to guide the investigation and to identify areas of inquiry. They are often open-ended and aimed at gathering information and understanding a phenomenon. Examples include “What is the relationship between…?” and “How does… affect…?”
  • Holistic questions: These questions are used to gather a comprehensive understanding of a subject. They take into account multiple perspectives and encourage the respondent to consider a subject from a broader viewpoint. Examples include “How does this fit into the bigger picture?” and “What are all of the factors that contribute to…?”
  • Yes/No questions: These can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” They are often used to gather basic information or to make sure someone has understood something. Examples include “Do you like pizza?” and “Are you feeling well?”
  • Conflict resolution questions: A set of questions used to facilitate a productive and peaceful resolution to a conflict. These questions are designed to help individuals or groups understand each other’s perspectives and find common ground. “What do we both agree on?” and “What do we both want to achieve?”

By using a combination of these different types of questions, directors at a board meeting can gather information, explore different perspectives, and make informed decisions.

Which Question Typology?

Various educational resources describe typologies of questions. Most have common elements, but usually some differences as well.

The chart below is adapted from Rhodes’ Typology of Questions, and while its educational orientation is obvious, it can readily be applied to more general use. This typology refers to various question orientations and purposes but does not list question types in a form related to normal usage by directors. I have therefore developed an alternative (although incomplete) list of question types that might be more familiar to non-profit directors and managers. That chart, which includes some question types that should be avoided where possible, follows immediately below the Rhodes’ Typology.

Question etiquette and your Code of Conduct

Questioning is a critical part of any board meeting, but it is important for directors to follow proper etiquette in order to ensure that the discussion is productive, respectful, and effective. The alternative typology above includes some question types which would desirably be avoided if you are to maintain a positive and productive board culture.

Your organisation’s values, and code of conduct, will doubtless already describe desirable attitudes and behaviours for directors and staff. Your selection and delivery of questions can be considered in the light of those guidelines. If you haven’t considered guidance on question etiquette for directors at board meetings though, it may be worthwhile reviewing your code of conduct to see whether the following might be included or accommodated in some way:

  • Listen carefully: Before asking a question, listen to what has been said and make sure you understand the context. This will help you to ask more informed and relevant questions.
  • Be clear and concise: When asking a question, make sure it is clear and concise so that everyone in the room understands what you are asking. Avoid using jargon or technical terms that others may not understand.
  • Avoid interruptions: Wait your turn to ask a question and avoid interrupting others while they are speaking. This helps to ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard and that the discussion remains respectful.
  • Avoid loaded questions: Loaded questions are questions that assume a particular answer or contain a bias. Avoid asking these types of questions as they can create an adversarial atmosphere and undermine the productive nature of the meeting.
  • Avoid personal attacks: When asking a question, avoid making personal attacks or blaming others. Instead, focus on the issue at hand and try to find a solution that benefits everyone.
  • Encourage discussion: When asking a question, encourage others to share their thoughts and opinions. This helps to build a more collaborative and inclusive atmosphere.
  • Be respectful: Remember to be respectful and professional at all times. Avoid using condescending language or raising your voice.

By following these guidelines, you can ensure that the questions you ask during a board meeting are productive, respectful, and effective. This can help to facilitate a more productive and efficient discussion, leading to better outcomes for your organisation.

Developing directors’ questioning skills

For directors, ‘skillful questioning‘ refers to the ability to ask questions that are effective, relevant, and productive. Skillful questioning involves a combination of technique and judgment, with the goals of facilitating discussion, gathering information, and making informed decisions in a timely manner.

Skillful questioning also requires directors to be attentive listeners, to have a good understanding of the topic at hand, and to have the ability to ask questions that are clear and concise. The ability to avoid loaded questions, personal attacks, and interruptions, and to encourage discussion and the sharing of different perspectives, are also essential aspects.

Skillful questioning is an important part of the broader skill set that is required of effective board directors. It can play a critical role in helping your organisation achieve its goals and objectives. Consequently, if questioning skill is not currently one of the focal areas in your director development program, it may be worth considering the potential benefits of its inclusion.

See also:
Are we there yet? Evaluating NFP outputs, outtakes, outcomes & impact
Hypothetically – what if …?
The Art of the Doable: Feasible, Pragmatic, and Capable
The Scales of Governance: Weighing options, arguments, evidence & consequences

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