Good leaders ask real questions

We find it difficult to ask questions. We'd rather not. Business questions and questions about this and that's okay. But real questions. Real questions? Still, asking questions is an essential leadership skill. Because real sincere questions allow us to better understand the other. Understand his or her motivations and underlying ideas. To be able to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. To understand means: to stand where the other person stands.


Why are we so bad at asking questions?

In her recent book “Socrates on Sneakers”, Elke Wiss gives a number of reasons. Some of them are interesting to think about. First of all, we like to talk about ourselves. Research shows that while talking about ourselves we create dopamine and that the reward and pleasure centers in our brains are activated. In other words: biology has predestined us to talk about ourselves. You wonder what evolutionary argument underlies this. In addition, it is true that it is not "who writes who stays", but "who talks who stays". An important other reason lies in the fact that asking questions is not rewarded in our “no-doubt society”. Giving your opinion, loudly, forcefully and with conviction, is what pays off. Questions are signs of uncertainty, thinking is seen as hesitating and thinking is experienced as doubting. And doubt is not allowed to play a role in our performance society. Or as Elke puts it: “By describing ignorance or doubt as inferior, you create a good breeding ground for uninformed yelling instead of asking questions". And finally, we think asking questions takes time. And we don't have that time. Time is scarce and precious. And if questioning takes time, it costs money.


Why is asking good questions so important?

The Belgian philosopher Arnold Cornelis said: “If the world goes faster, you have to slow down to understand it better”. And so, it is. Our world is a fast world. A complex world and a moving world. But in that dynamic, it is the deeper view and belief that give great direction to the behavior of man and system. With good questions, Elke calls it “Socratic conversations”, you find out those principles, those starting points, those motives - the reasons behind, behind our behavior, hidden, concealed and unspoken. And only by discovering those motives, reasons to move, do we gain insight into what moves a person, what moves a group. What determines its behavior. And if we know the motives, then we can move along in a meaningful way. Together we arrive at new insights and arguments to perhaps do things differently, or even better. In short, good questions are essential to gain insight. In order to gain understanding. And understanding leads to collectivity, leads to new shared insights and new shared motives. Good questions are an important characteristic of leadership.


But what good question is that?

I agree with the definition used by Elke Wiss:

"A question is an invitation. An invitation to reflect, explain, sharpen, deepen, provide information, investigate and connect. A good question is clearly formulated and is born out of an open and curious attitude. A good question stays with (the story of) the other person. A good question sets thinking in motion. A good question leads to clarification, new insights or a new perspective for the person answering the question."


If you look closely at this definition, one thing is clear: a good question is about the other and stays with the other! And that is why it is so difficult to ask good questions. What matters is that we learn to understand the other person. Learning to move. A good question allows us to look deeper. Let us get to the heart of the matter. Get to the things that really matter and what it's really about. A good question connects.


How do I get good questions?

Asking good questions is an art, is a skill. A skill that Socrates possessed to a large extent. Socrates was always looking for the real answers. Always trying to fathom what was really going on. That attitude and his way of asking questions forms the basis of what we have come to call a "Socratic conversation". A conversation that goes just a little deeper, in which judgement is postponed. The modern Socratic conversation is derived from the conversations Socrates had in ancient Athens.


Essential in a Socratic conversation is that the answer comes from the respondent. That the answer comes from within and not from without. A pitfall that many questioners fall into: putting words in the respondent’s mouths. Socratic conversations strive for real answers through systematic reflection on one's own experience. Real own experiences. That is why it is important that the questioner has the right mental attitude: curious, inquisitive, patient, open-minded and a healthy degree of empathy.


Leonard Nelson practically translated this method in the 20th century. Through 'regressive abstraction', principles that lie behind the actions are uncovered. We discover the presuppositions, the implicit assumptions that lead to certain judgments or answers.


A Socratic conversation is characterized by a consistent approach. This approach provides for a fixed number of steps:

  1. Choosing a theme

  2. Taking stock of philosophical questions and making a choice for one question

  3. Name and select examples from your own experience for illustrative purposes

  4. Asking questions about the illustrative example for clarification

  5. Formulating the 'place of effort': crucial moment with a core claim

  6. Responding to this core claim: taking stock of other positions and arguments

  7. Conclusion: to what extent is there consensus in the answers to the question?

  8. Evaluation of the conversation

Finally, Socratic conversations are characterized by a number of rules that make it different from a discussion or debate:

Base your own opinion on your own experience: not on books, stories of others or authorities.

Be concrete and concise: no long monologues. Make sure others can follow you.

Think with each other: it's a joint research. Try to understand each other.

Aim for consensus (agreement).


Back to Leadership

Leaders within VIBRANT ORGANISATIONS act as coaches, as facilators. They offer space and allow teams to excel. Their informal authority is the basis for their successful operation. Informal authority is highly dependent on authenticity, honesty and humanity. Sincere interest and real understanding are crucial qualities. That is why good leaders ask real questions. VIBRANT LEADERSHIP.


(This article was translated from Dutch using AI)


Do you want to know more? Here are our literature tips

  • Elke Wis, Socrates op Sneakers, Ambo| Anthos, 2020

  • Kessels, J., Boers, E. & Mostert, P. (2008). Vrije ruimte praktijkboek; filosoferen in organisaties

  • Thanks to Prof. dr. Andre Wierdsma for the concept “plek der moeite”