(Influential Leadership) Ask The Right Questions


Five Types of Questions to Add to Your Influencing Toolkit

In our last tip, we discussed how powerful questions can help you as a leader and coach. Now let’s explore specific types of questions that are most effective to ask when you want to influence others, and when to use them.


1. Low-Structured Questions

The general rule is that the less structured your questions are, the better they are when you seek understanding. High-structured questions, like those inviting a “yes or no” answer, are more limiting. High-structured questions begin with words like Are, Do, Did, Have and Will.


For example:

  • “Have you tried …. {a certain approach}?”
  • “Do you think this problem may be caused by…?”
  • “Are you planning to talk with Peter soon?”


On the other hand, low-structured questions give the other person plenty of room to respond. We have a better chance of gaining more information, and thus, understanding. Low-structured questions begin with words like What, How and Could.


For example, compare:

“Have you tried increasing the communication with IT during the product development process?”




“What approaches have you tried to improve communication with IT during the product development process?”


The first question is a yes/no question and could subconsciously limit the client to only talking about one scenario. The second question provides more room for the client to recall anything they have tried to improve the communication with IT.


Types of Low-Structured Questions

Become comfortable with asking questions using the following formats. Pay attention to the wording because specifically worded questions solicit different types of responses:

  • “Could” questions will lead to exploration in a way that allows your client to answer as they wish. “Could you tell me more about that?” would be an example. Note: You could argue that grammatically, this is a “yes/no” question, but practically speaking, it invites an open-ended answer.
  • “What” questions ask for more information. “What happened when you presented the new product to the field force?” or “What outcome would be a win for the organization?”
  • “How” questions lead to a process and sequence of emotions, rationale or actions. “How did you come to the decision to postpone the product introduction?”
  • “Why” questions leads a person to search for a reason. Often this causes them to feel defensive.


As a general rule, it’s better to use “how” or “what” rather than “why.” For example, instead of asking “Why did you do that?” you could ask, “What were your reasons for deciding to do that?” or “What led you to do that?”


2. Clarifying Questions

A critical step in the process of understanding our client’s needs is to ask clarifying questions. Clarifying questions ensure that we’re not assuming that we understand what our client is saying. It encourages the client to elaborate and get more specific.


Use clarifying questions any time the client uses terms or concepts that may mean different things to different people. You can also employ these questions to get an expanded view on your client’s motivation or desired outcome.


For example,

  • When you say that you feel “our sales have stymied,” what do you mean?
  • What let’s you know that we need a new valuation system?
  • How would you know that the new reporting structure is paying off?
  • What specifically is it about the current field compensation that you find “unacceptable?”


3. Importance Questions

As the term implies, these questions are designed to determine what’s important and meaningful to your client. Importance Questions help us understand their “hot buttons” and the significance behind the words they’re saying.


For example, let’s say the head of product development wants you to redesign your current variable universal life (VUL) product. You might ask:

  • “What’s most important to you about having a new VUL product?”
  • “What is it about having this redesigned by April that’s so important?”
  • “How important is agent compensation versus product performance to you?”


You may think that the answers to these questions are obvious. This is one of the key mistakes we make in communication. By asking these questions, you will deliver a better product to your client.


4. Implied Questions

Sometimes you can elicit more information by making statements that are, in essence, implied questions. Here are two examples:

  • “Tell Me”“Tell me more about …(e.g., your systems challenges)
  •  “I wonder…”“As I listen to how many problems you’ve experienced with this system implementation, I’m wondering about the frustration level of the team…” (invites more of the details and dynamics of the situation).


5. “Fill in the Blank” Questions

A simple way to get your client to clarify and elaborate is to use “fill in the blank” questions. With these you speak in an incomplete sentence with a voice tonality and body language that invites your client to “fill in the blank.” I love these questions because they allow you to guide the conversation without disrupting the flow.


Let me give you some examples. Let’ say your client says, “We need to quickly change the way we’re organized in our division.”


You might ask (and then pause to let your client finish the sentence):

  • “Because…?”
  •  “How so?”
  •  “So we can…?”
  • “By ‘quickly’ you mean…?”


Your Coaching Challenge: Work to incorporate one of these types of powerful questions each week for the next five weeks. You will notice an increase in your communication effectiveness and influence.   And let us know what happens!


(Contributed by David C MillerLearn more about how to ask powerful questions

and other influencing skills in his book: The Influential Actuary. )

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *