One of the things I’ve learned as a coach is that it’s far more useful to ask a good question than to give someone an answer.

Yet, at work, we’re constantly expected to provide answers. Not only that, people want us to answer with conviction and confidence. Otherwise, we risk being seen as weak, ignorant, or both.

Questions to ask at work

While there are many times when a definitive answer is exactly the right thing, like when your boss turns to you in a meeting and asks, “What does the data say about XYZ?”, often you’re better off asking a great question. One that turns the meeting in a different direction, introduces a new angle for thinking about the problem, and makes people think.

One of my former colleagues was especially skillful at this. He would wait until the right moment – usually about two-thirds of the way through the meeting when we were getting mired in some well-worn internal debate, and badly needed to get back on track. Then he would sit forward and ask something like, “Has anyone thought about this from the client’s perspective?” And that would free us from the endless loop so we could move into a more productive space.

Here are a few others that I’ve come across that are effective.

To make sure there’s alignment:

  • “How would this benefit the bigger mission?”
  • “How does this align with the company’s strategy?”

To encourage collaboration:

  • “Who else could contribute to this effort?”

To manage stakeholders:

  • “How would this affect stakeholder X?”
  • “Who needs to know about this before it’s announced?”

To elicit ideas:

  • “What more can we do to win the mandate/competition/award/grant?”
  • “What would happen if we did the opposite?”

To pressure test:

  • “What could stop us?”

To do a reality check:

  • “What would need to be true in order for us to succeed?”
  • “What assumptions are we making?”

To examine scenarios:

  • “What if XYZ were to happen/not happen?”
  • “Who would be the winners versus the losers in this scenario?”

To get a meeting back on track:

  • “These are good points, but we don’t have enough time to do them justice. Could we take this offline?”
  • “Is this on the critical path?”
  • “Is there anything else we need to cover before Mary has to leave for her next meeting?”

Questions to ask yourself

Another place where questions can make a big difference is when it comes to managing your own career. Unless you hire a coach or have a particularly astute set of mentors and friends, no one else is going to ask you to think about these things. Yet you’ll be far more successful and satisfied with your life if you do.

So exactly why is asking yourself these questions such a vital part of having a great career and life?

First, they make you think and reflect. In a world of hyperactivity and the “always on” culture, creating space to think is a well-deserved luxury. It will help you do your best work and live life according to your own terms. I like to think of it as living “on purpose”.

Second, they can alert you to times when you need to make a change, and encourage you to act. Even though it’s uncomfortable to hear the truth, there’s no point in keeping yourself in the dark until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Third, these questions make it more likely that you will focus on what truly matters and use your time wisely. And time is the only thing we can’t make more of, even if most of us don’t treat it that way. Like spending hours making international travel arrangements myself to avoid paying a nominal travel agent fee!

There are certain questions that you need to ask yourself periodically to make sure you’re still on track. In case you’re concerned that these are navel-gazing kinds of questions, let me assure you that these are all practical and serve a purpose.

Here are a dozen of my favorite ones grouped according to their application.

When you are super busy:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • How does this support my bigger future?
  • What do I need to say “no” to?
  • Am I focusing my energies in the right places?

To make sure you keep improving:

  • How have I invested in myself this quarter?
  • Am I still learning and growing?
  • Am I putting my best foot forward every day?

To get out of your own head:

  • What more can I do for my clients/colleagues/organization/family?
  • How can I make a difference here?

To move beyond your comfort zone:

  • What am I afraid of, and what do I want to do about that?
  • Am I playing big enough?
  • What’s the one action I will take this week to get beyond my comfort zone?

It doesn’t hurt to ask

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of asking questions. At work, they can help you add value and support the team, and in the career context, they can get you to take action toward your goals.

Plus, as they say, if you don’t ask, you won’t know. And I like to go into situations knowing as much as I can. Don't you?

So look for moments when asking just the right question can move a meeting along, help yourself or a colleague get noticed, and spur your career to new heights.

And when it comes to having a great career and life, not only doesn’t it hurt to ask, you’ll be better off when you do.

In the spirit of this post, let me ask you this question:

What are your favorite questions to ask at work and to ask yourself?

Leave a comment below and share your wisdom.