Questioning is one of those skills that most, if not all, know is an important catalyst for learning and growth. Yet, with the fast-paced nature of our schools and the multiple demands for our time and attention, its power is sometimes forgotten: we resort to telling instead of asking, directing instead of facilitating, and advising instead of empowering.
It can seem hard at first – to slow down and pause, to ask and listen. We think it’s much easier and faster to tell and move on. And asking good questions is a skill that takes time, learning, and practice to develop.
However, there are many reasons to prioritize developing your questioning techniques.
Here are just a few reasons why it’s important for us all to get better at questioning:
- Asking authentic, effective questions shows you value the other person and believe in their capacity and potential.
- Good questions uncover unknown thinking.
- Effective questioning empowers others by building efficacy and agency.
- Questioning, active listening, and paraphrasing build connection and help others feel seen and heard.
So, what are some ways you can get better at questioning? I’m glad you asked.
1. Start from a place of curiosity and humility
If you think you know everything or even more than the person you’re talking to, then you will have a hard time asking questions. But the honest truth is: none of us know everything about everything; no one likes to be talked at; and like Michael Bungay Stanier likes to say, “Your advice isn’t as good as you think it is.”
For example, even when coaching first-year teachers, I remind myself: I may know more about content knowledge and pedagogy, but I will never know more about a teacher’s students than that teacher. So, I often begin there.
Lately, my favorite question to start with in a coaching conversation is one I stole from Steve Barkley: What would you like to see your students doing differently? Or, what would you like to see happen with your students that is not happening now? Through these questions, I uncover a teacher’s motivations, values, passions, and desire for positive change.
So, ask yourself: What don’t you know?
- Think of one teacher whom you would like to have a conversation with.
- Quick-write for 3 minutes: What do you know about them professionally? Personally?
- After 3 minutes, reflect on your writing: Is there anything that you might need to know? What questions might help you find the answers?
2. Paraphrase and ask clarifying questions.
“Paraphrasing is the magic coaching skill.” I learned this gem from Steve Barkley. Through paraphrasing (not parrot-phrasing), we express the perceived meaning or emotions of the speaker using different words. This helps us gain greater clarity and helps others feel listened to and heard, while giving them an opportunity to hear their own thoughts, clear up any misconceptions, and often come up with their own solutions. Making an effort to understand another and asking clarifying questions in an attempt to have a deeper understanding drives connection, trust, and belonging.
For example, if a teacher said to me:
“I have a student who has crazy emotions. He runs around the classroom when he gets upset, and it takes him forever to calm down. He won’t listen to me when he’s like that.”
I could paraphrase and ask a clarifying question by replying:
“It sounds like you want to help this student develop self-regulation strategies to help him be successful in class. What appears to trigger his high emotions?”
Paraphrase the following statement with empathy and positive intent. (Here are some paraphrasing stems to help.)
“Students these days just don’t want to listen. All they care about is their phones. I can’t compete with that!”
3. Think about the purpose of the question before you ask it.
Be intentional and authentic. Everyone can smell a fake question and knows when a person is sincerely interested in listening or is not. Again, Steve Barkley has taught me to consider three purposes for asking questions:
- Finding out and knowing
- Sparking thinking through reflection
- Exploring future action
Plan your first question for an upcoming conversation. Think about why you are starting with that question. What is your purpose for asking the question? What are you hoping to uncover?
4. Extend Trust
I’ve studied trust for a long time and thought I knew what it was until recently, when Stephen Covey’s most recent book, Trust and Inspire, expanded my thinking. He asks, “Is it possible to have two trustworthy people working together and to have no trust in between them… if neither person is willing to extend trust to the other?” (p.129)
This got me thinking of trust as an action, a choice we make over and over again – to be vulnerable, to be okay with it being done a different way than our own, and to believe the other person has the capacity and potential (even when they might not believe it themselves yet).
So, when you ask a question and you listen to another’s response, you are essentially telling them, “I trust you. I believe in you.” You’re giving up your desire to control the conversation and its outcome, and you can enter into a true coaching partnership. So, ask yourself: Do you withhold trust or extend it?
Use the following guiding questions to reflect with a colleague:
- Is the culture at your campus based on trust? What would this look like and sound like?
- Are teachers on your campus trusted to do their jobs?
- Do your behaviors exhibit trustworthiness?
- Which has more risk – trusting people or not trusting people?
- Which is greater, the cost of trusting too much or the cost of not trusting enough?
5. Learn, network, and observe.
Finally, one of the best ways to improve your questioning skills is to learn and practice. You can do this through shadowing and observing others’ coaching conversations, recording any stems or moves you notice. Or, by reflecting on your questioning after a coaching conversation. Or, by having a coach yourself, because everyone deserves a coach.
If you want to learn from one of the best at questioning, join us for our Virtual Lunch & Learn Series with Steve Barkley: Coaching, Facilitating, and Leading with Questions!
- Thu. 1/26/2023
- Thu. 2/9/2023
- Thu. 3/9/2023
As a coach, there is nothing better than unlocking the potential in another – to see something in them that they may not have seen themselves and to accomplish goals that, at first, may have felt impossible. Through questioning, we can help others explore their thinking, discover their own solutions and next steps, and empower them to take action.