Questions Are Indefensible©

Marilee Adams is the creator of Question ThinkingTM and the author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work, and she powerfully posited the following:

The most effective communication is about 20% telling and 80% asking. Most of us have turned this around – 80% telling and 20% asking.

What do you think about that paradigm shift? As someone who loves questions, who fully embraces their power, and who is known as my company’s Chief Question Officer, even I have some work to do to get my questioning focus to 80%. While this may be a big shift for most of us, I know Marilee is correct because the right questions (not all questions are good questions in communication) have the ability to transform communication and understanding.

This week I want to focus on one of the most unique aspects of questions—one that conscious leaders leverage for themselves and others: questions are indefensible. The reason is simple: our brains automatically and honestly answer every question that is asked. In sharp contrast, people can, will and often automatically do reject or defend themselves against statements. Many leaders work on their communication skills by learning how best to deliver information (statements), while conscious leaders work on their questioning skills in order to create the positive outcomes that questions can deliver.

I stumbled upon this truth a couple of years ago. I was listening to a speaker at a conference who had written a book on raising children. What he had learned from his own research is that people (actually our brains) immediately, automatically and honestly answer every question that is presented. Even if we do not know the answer, the brain will try to process to an answer until it realizes that it does not have the information or ability to answer it.

The speaker had discovered (based upon brain function research) that when he told his children things, they could reject his comments and assessments. However, if he asked them questions (not rhetorical questions, which are just statements with a question mark at the end), he could communicate his message without them being able to reject it or defend against it. For example, his statement to his son might be: “It’s not fair that you have the benefit of everything that your Mom and I do for you around the house, but you cannot take care of your few responsibilities.” Rejected and ignored. Now to the question approach:

Do you think it’s fair that your Mom and I provide you with everything you need, but you don’t take care of your few household responsibilities?

Even if his son says that he thinks it is fair or otherwise gets defensive, the question was still answered honestly and automatically by his brain. In other words, the message got through the lines of defense. Of course, the desired change in behavior may take more than a few questions, but the point is that questions, unlike statements, cannot be defended against by the person to whom they are directed.

For this reason, I encourage all of my clients to develop the habit of converting statements into questions. It takes time and practice, but anyone can develop this conscious leadership skill. Imagine that you want to tell a team member that his or her performance is not meeting expectations. Here is the statement version:

Your work on the VIP project was not acceptable.

Even if supported by the facts, this statement represents the speaker’s judgment of the team member’s performance, and it will often be received or heard as a personal judgment about the team member’s character or worth, not just their performance. In other words, there is a risk that the team member will “hear” that he or she is not acceptable. While we could blame the team member for receiving the information this way, the trouble with constructive criticism for many people is that it is often just critical and laced with the personal judgments of the person giving the criticism.

Because you desire your feedback to be received and heard, you want to turn this statement into a question, but your initial impulse will be to take it only far enough to be rhetorical question—a statement with a question mark at the end:

Don’t you think your work on the VIP project was unacceptable?

Or this way:

Do you think your work on the VIP project was acceptable?

These are still not the types of questions that will generate the positive impact and outcomes that conscious leaders are seeking for themselves, their relationships and their team members.

In order to offer support that provides the listener genuine opportunities for self-reflection, assessment and personal ownership of the solutions, here are some examples of better questions:

What did you think of your work on the VIP project?

What specifically did you do well on the VIP project?

What specific improvement opportunities surfaced on the VIP project?

If the person is not aware enough or is unwilling to answer these questions honestly, then you have additional development work to do with that team member. You can also continue with more questions to help that person better see the impact of his or her performance:

What was the impact of your performance on the VIP project on the organization, your team or other team members?

Were there any unintended consequences from your work on the VIP project?

These questions are invitations for the team member to self-assess, self-evaluate and self-identify improvement opportunities, which you would then follow up by asking that team member what he or she can and will do to make those improvements. When we tell people what they need to do differently or to change, this approach often fails; however, when we help people take personal responsibility for being different or changing their performance, we create opportunities for true and sustainable change in people and in outcomes. This is precisely the impact that conscious leaders seek to create through the use of questions.

I believe that questions are the answer, and the key beginning point is to value the shift and be committed to it. For many people, this commitment comes fairly easily because they quickly recognize that the statement approach is not working and not serving them, others or their relationships. For those that are unwilling to change and want to stick with the easy approach of making statements and judgments, they will struggle to become the conscious leaders they could be, and perhaps they will not fit on your team or in your organization. Living in a state of questions is not for everyone, and conscious leaders self-select this way of being and leading. It is not and cannot be thrust upon them, but it will propel them to new heights of leadership and communication.



  1. Jeff, I adore Marilee Adams’ work. I’ve seen her speak a few times and read both editions of her book multiple times. You’ve really captured something powerful here — the reason WHY questions work so much better as a tool for leadership. On my list of distinctions between management and leadership behavior, this one is near the top of the list: Managers Tell, Leaders Ask.

    This is one of your best posts. (Well, let’s be careful about assessments — It is one of MY favorite posts of yours — well stated and demonstrated!)

    • Jeff, I love your post! As a woman, working in a male-dominated field in my 20’s and 30’s “I thought” the best way to demonstrate my credibility quickly to fellow-engineers and the C-Level was tell them how much I knew. And YES…I was called a Task Master. Finally, I GOT IT! (Better late than never.) People could tell by the quality of my questions just how much I knew and more importantly how much I CARED. Now, working with clients and being of true service to them is all about asking great questions, getting great answers and SERVING.
      And the best news of all…I am not called a Task Master anymore! L

    • Jeff Nischwitz says:

      Jim – Thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspectives. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the focus on the WHY of the value of questions. Jeff

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