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4 questions to make leading and learning more effective

Teasing out colleagues' concerns and needs by asking the right questions can result in thoughtful answers and better leadership.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Single line drawing of a light bulb with a question mark for article on question prompts

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of questions. In fact, during a learning session that I was facilitating, one of the educators shared that he, too, had been thinking about how our challenges in the education space often come back to our difficulty asking the right questions (and assisting others with doing the same).

Fred Ende

That got me thinking … what if we spent more time focusing on the questions we ask than the answers we always seem to want to seek?

So, with that as the background, here are four questions that I believe can strengthen our work as leaders and learners, and four questions that I am striving to further add into the work that I do.

What’s on your mind? 

This question isn’t just the prompt point for most social media platforms as a coincidence. The words specifically draw out reflective thinking for each of us as individuals. Those four words actually force us to think about what we are thinking about. And the moment we do that, we make ourselves live in the present, which is often the first step in more effectively undertaking any endeavor. 

Reflecting on this question is one thing. Asking it of others is something else. When we start a conversation with “What’s on your mind?” we prompt people to take a step back and deeply consider both the obstacles in their path and the successes they have faced. Michael Bungay Stanier makes this question a key component of his work in “The Coaching Habit.” There is no wrong way to use that question, other than never asking it (or reflecting on it).

Why do you think this is urgent or important? 

In a best-case scenario, everything we do falls into the category of important first. In many scenarios, urgency takes priority, and many times unimportant wins out as well. Knowing that urgent items must be addressed, and recognizing that we are doing our best work when the outcomes are important to those we serve, it makes sense to frame a focus question that pushes us to reflect on why we are looking to take action on the obstacle, item, opportunity, etc. in front of us. 

This is a great question to ask after identifying what is on someone’s mind for a few reasons. First, it builds the necessary connection between the what and the why that is a requirement for moving from thinking to action. Second, it forces us as thinkers to ask ourselves if what’s on our mind really should be occupying that space. Finally, it pushes us to let those ideas, challenges, opportunities, etc. go that are not either urgent or important. We all have too many things going on to actively take on the unimportant.

What do we think would happen if … ? 

What comes after the if is important, of course, though is secondary to what comes before. This question is designed to see what people are already thinking about. Sometimes we need validation to take action, while other times we need a different perspective that our colleagues can bring. 

Another important element to this question? The “We.” While a question asker should always work to be an asker first, there are key times when the asker and answerer can be a bit fluid. With this question, it is important to give your partner(s) a chance to think and respond first. Only then does it make sense to share how you think it would go “if … .“ While we can’t decide to take action in every direction, we can at least provide ourselves with enough perspective to make sure the direction we choose is as thought-through as possible.

How can I help? 

This question doesn’t always have an easy answer. But the answer to this question is only one part of the reason why we ask it. In some cases, asking someone what they need from us to assist them in meeting their goals is enough to better understand a need they would like our help in fulfilling. In other cases, the answer isn’t yet known, and the question ends up having another impact. It often signals to those we ask that we are here for them, with them and willing to offer ourselves up to help them process whatever they are working on. Many times, that knowledge is enough to either help that person solve what they are facing on their own or come up with ways in which we can provide an assist. Any question that provides two pathways to helping others is a worthy one to remember.

There are so many important questions for us to ask. And there are often great answers to come from them. That said, unlike the chicken-or-egg conundrum, it is clear that questions need to come first. The answer, while powerful, will only foster more effective leading and learning when the question asked has been well-designed.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Ende currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, “Professional Development That Sticks” and “Forces of Influence,” are available from ASCD. Connect with Ende on his website or on Twitter.


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 



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