The Power of Curiosity and the Art of Asking Questions

Three people sitting at a desk looking at notes on a folder while another person looks on while on computer

Mastering Hard Conversations
The Power of Curiosity & The Art of Asking Questions

Communicating with “difficult” people can be a challenge. Whether you like it or not, there will be times when you must navigate uncomfortable conversations with people who have a different perspective to you. By bringing a mindset of curiosity to the situation, and asking great “open” questions, you can gain insight and understanding of the other persons perspective. Asking open questions can be incredibly powerful. They can change the way people see you. A great open question signals that you are keen to understand what the other person has to say. Often, they change the tone of the conversation. Conversations that otherwise might become adversarial become civilised dialogue.

What are we covering to get to the why?

Not all questions are the same. Questions can be “open” or “closed”. Open questions invite expansive answers. They give permission for the other person to share their perspective in a safe environment, which can change the dynamic of the situation and create a more “psychologically safe” workplace.

Open questions begin with “who”, “what”, “when” or “how”. Closed questions invite a yes/no response. When we are trying to gain insight and understanding, asking open questions is the way to go. This is not to say that closed questions aren’t helpful. They are great for confirming what you think someone has said or gaining clarity around a situation. But, if you are trying to gain insight and understanding, you need to become a master of asking great open questions.

Here are some illustrations of closed v. open questions.

Closed Question Open Question
Are you angry? How are you feeling?
Would you like to go to the park? Where would you like to go?
Do you like my idea? What do you think of my idea?
Can we start now? When would you like to start?


How can I use this in my work?

When you find yourself feeling frustrated or confused, slow down, take a breath and be curious! Let’s imagine you have a situation where you are struggling to understand and get along with your boss.

Here are eight open questions that you could ask your boss to increase your insight and facilitate a productive conversation:

  1. What are your key priorities over the next few months?
  2. What do you need from me and the rest of the team to ensure we achieve your desired outcomes?
  3. How are you finding the way I am approaching my work?
  4. What’s frustrating or concerning you?
  5. I was proposing to do it this way because (explain your thinking) …what do you think?
  6. If you’d like me to do one thing differently, what would that be?
  7. What else can I do to help?
  8. How would you feel if I shared some thoughts on how we could improve the way we work together?

A warning. Be careful of using “why”. Why is a fantastic question for root cause analysis as it can help you gain deeper understanding of a situation, but why questions need to be used with care. When asked “why” people often feel like they are being blamed or judged and they immediately go on the defensive. For example, “Why did you take that action” is often interpreted as “Why did you do that, you idiot” and triggers a defensive response.  The question is better framed using who, what when, where, or how. You get to explore the same issue without the risk of a defensive response. Instead of “why did you take that action?” you could ask “What influenced your decision to take that action?”. This is less judgemental and more likely to generate a constructive conversation.


Checklist of up to three actions/steps you could take today to put this skill into practice

  1. When you are frustrated or confused, write down what you don’t understand
  2. Practice changing your “why” questions into “what” or “how” questions
  3. Before going into a challenging meeting, write down three open questions you’d really like to explore with the other person


— Article by Mark Rosenberg

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Rachael McDiarmid