Asking questions is part art and part science, and is much more complex than most people realize.

I’m working toward certification as a professional coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF is like the Professional Association for SQL Server, or PASS, but for coaches). One topic I’ve spent a great amount of time learning about is how to ask questions. Most technologists spend a great deal of time asking questions, and it occurs to me that becoming more skillful in asking questions is something that can benefit all SQL Server Pro UPDATE readers.

There are a number of question styles that aren't always the best for engaging in conversation or trying to be the best technologist you can be on a daily basis. This week, I present a brief overview of some common question styles you might want to avoid. I’m starting a deeper series on the art and science of questions in my L.E.A.P. Think blog that focuses on leadership, entrepreneurism, and professional development for the IT profession.

Here's a question for you: Did you know that asking "why" questions can make people feel defensive and can color the way they respond to you? It's odd, but it's true. Plenty of research shows that "why" questions tend to provoke a defensive response posture. Examples include, "Why did you do that?" or "Why didn't you do this?" A better way to frame the question might be, "What led to this decision?"

Leading and advice questions suggest a solution or path of action. For example, "Have you considered doing XYZ?" is more of a suggestion than a question. "How can we address this problem?" is sometimes a helpful alternative.

Closed questions encourage a yes or no response. "Do you like my editorial this week?" is closed. You would probably respond with a yes or no and I wouldn’t learn much from your answer. "What do you think about my editorial this week?" is likely to get more a more useful response.

Did you know you that rhetorical questions or statements posed in the form of a question tend to be judgmental or emotional? 

So-called small questions tend to limit conversation; powerful questions tend to expand conversation. "What can we do about this problem?" is an example of a small question. "What will success look like in 6 months?" is a much bigger and more powerful question. The second question is more likely to bring the conversation to new and interesting places and open up ideas that otherwise might not be considered.

"What does success look like?" is now a staple question that I almost always use when I'm working with a new customer or trying to frame a problem. I was a little bit startled when I used the question for the first time during a customer call. After chatting for 30 minutes or so, and allowing the customer to frame their problem, I said something like, "What does success look like 3 months after we're done with this project?" Awkward silence followed. The customer eventually said something like, "I hadn’t thought about that. That's a really good question." More awkward silence. Then I learned a tremendous amount more about what the customer really needed.

So, did you like my commentary this week?  Just kidding!  This is better: What do you think of my commentary this week? I'd really like to hear your thoughts.