3 Rules of Great Questions

Most people don’t ask good questions.

I’ve been leading Vistage in Spain for the last 5 years. We coach CEOs to increase their effectiveness and improve their quality of life. We do this with questions. I’ve spent these last 5 years paying attention to how people use questions.

I recently came across a thread on twitter that had 3 good rules for better questions.

John Sawatsky’s 3 rules of great questions:

  • Start open-ended
  • Keep them neutral
  • Make them lean

Effective questions

1. Open

Rule: great questions are open-ended. Open questions invite deeper dialogue. They encourage the person to expand. Closed questions (yes/no) do the opposite.

Open-ended examples:

  • What is exciting you right now?
  • Why do people struggle with that?
  • How would you solve this problem?

These Qs are probing for conversation. They can’t be answered with yes/no.

Closed-ended examples:

  • Did you buy the truck?
  • Is the steak here good?
  • Are you going to the game?
  • Should we go on a hike today?

These Qs are quick and transactional. There will likely be no depth to the response.

2. Neutral

Rule: great questions are neutral.

Neutral questions don’t “lead” the person. They allow them to naturally follow their curiosity. Non-neutral questions are often called “loaded.” Consciously or subconsciously, they are biased.

Neutral examples:

  • What inspired that?
  • What happened next?
  • How did you decide that?
  • Why did you do it that way?
  • How would you explain this?

These questions have no bias. They are objective and curious.

Non-neutral examples:

  • Why do you get defensive so easily?
  • How were you able to show such courage?
  • What made that such a terrible play call?

These Qs carry an assumption or opinion. Positively or negatively, they are “loaded.”

3. Lean

Rule: great questions are lean.

Complex questions are hard to answer. Simple questions produce thoughtfulness and insight. Make it easy for the person to engage.

Lean examples:

  • What happened then?
  • What did you do next?
  • How did it go?
  • What else?

Be simple + direct, then get out of the way.

Non-lean question:

There’s so many awesome people on Twitter. Who are your favorite follows, why and what is one great thing you’ve read from each of them?

See the problem? You don’t even know where to begin.

If this was of use, you can follow Teddy Mitrosilis on twitter.

More from the blog on great questions…

How to ask Great Questions (and Listen Actively)

I’ve been on my first long distance travels for the last 2 years. I am in Montevideo, Uruguay this week teaching at IEEM Business School. I’ve been coming here for the last 12 years (last year was a virtual visit via zoom). Many of my classes this week finished with participants commenting on the importance of listening to others before jumping to conclusions. A big part of listening is learning to ask great questions.

There are several good frameworks to structure your questions… one good framework is this one from RAIN sales. A longer explanation of their framework and approach to questions in the context of sales training is available in this pdf: Keys to Leading Masterful Sales Conversations (pdf from the RAIN group).

The 4 levels of Questions

The 4 levels of questions are listed and described below:

  1. Facts – questions about what is basically true for us both and we can agree upon.
  2. Opinions – questions about the other person’s opinion about the facts, the trends in the facts, what is important about the facts, what does it mean, who else is affected.
  3. Impact – questions about the short, medium and long term impact if we do or do not take action. The secret to a good impact question? it has the word “impact” in it.
  4. Change – questions about what it would be worth to achieve a change, what actions we are willing to commit to, what it would be worth to us if we could achieve a better future.

Here’s a list of 50 great sales questions divided into these 4 types of question from the RAIN Group blog.

If you liked this post, you will also like How to Take Better Business Decisions: 50 Great Questions for Critical Thinking and Jim Collins: How to Build an Enduring Great Company (12 Questions for Leaders).

Postcards from Montevideo

A few more images of my adventures in Montevideo

How to Take Better Business Decisions: 50 Great Questions for Critical Thinking

A leader should be interested in developing 2 competencies in the people within their organisation:

  1. Good Decision Making (to take good choices about how to use the resources of the organisation to achieve strategic plans)
  2. Influencing Skills (because if they cannot influence their peers, people will have to involve you every time…)

If your team doesn’t have #1 they are taking poor decisions.  If your team doesn’t have #2 they cannot execute without your support (you will be sucked in to every initiative).

In order to take Good Decisions, you need to ask great questions.  

Most people ask few questions and rapidly jump to a solution.  Great decision makers ask many questions and get many perspectives before they commit to a decision.  Here’s a set of great questions…

This set of questions was inspired by the Global Digital Citizen Foundation and by Vistage Issue Processing where we help leaders develop the ability to ask great questions to help leaders think more deeply and see new perspectives, clarify objectives and take disciplined effective action.

The Ultimate Guide to Great Questions for Critical Thinking

Divided into who, what, where, when, why, how…


  • …benefits from this?
  • …is this harmful to?
  • …makes decisions about this?
  • …is most directly affected?
  • …have you also heard discuss this?
  • …would be the best person to consult?
  • …else has overcome a similar challenge?
  • …will be the key people in this?
  • …deserves recognition for this?


  • …is the impact on you?
  • …is the impact on those close to you?
  • …are the strengths/weaknesses?
  • …is another perspective?
  • …is another alternative?
  • …would be a counter-argument?
  • …is the best/worst case scenario?
  • …is the most/least important?
  • …can we do to make a positive change?
  • …is getting in the way of taking action?


  • …else would we see this problem showing up in your life?
  • …else have you overcome this type of challenge?
  • …are there similar situations?
  • …is there the most need for this?
  • …would this be the greatest problem?
  • …can we get more information?
  • …do we go for help with this?
  • …will this idea take us?
  • …are the areas for improvement?


  • …is this acceptable/unacceptable?
  • …would this benefit you?
  • …would this cause a problem?
  • …is the best time to take action?
  • …will we know we’ve succeeded?
  • …has this played a part in your past?
  • …can we expect this to change?
  • …should we ask for help with this?


  • …is this a problem/challenge?
  • …is it relevant to your goals?
  • …is this the best/worst scenario?
  • …are people influenced by this?
  • …should people know about this?
  • …has it been this way for so long?
  • …is there a need for this today?


  • …is this similar to _____?
  • …does this disrupt things?
  • …do we know the truth about this?
  • …does this benefit you/us/others?
  • …does this harm you/us/others?
  • …do we see this playing out in the future?
  • …can we help you?
[Edit: this poem was shared by my Dad upon receiving this post]

I Keep Six Honest Serving Men
Rudyard Kipling
I KEEP six honest serving-men
 (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When 
 And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
 I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
 I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
 For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
 For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views; 
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
 From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

The Elephant’s Child 

More Great Questions for Vistage Groups

Great Questions for Teaching & the Learning Process

Communication requires 2 people

Communication happens in the recipient.

If there is no recipient, it is not communication. It is called noise, or as the Irish say: “shouting at the storm”.

Communication can only begin when you understand what the recipient wants, what their goals are, what is missing in their current way of life.  If you don’t know the recipient, you are probably making noise.

Improve your communications by changing your question to answer ratio.  Ask more of these questions:

  • “What is already working well?”
  • “What is not working so well?”
  • “What would you change?”
  • “What objectives do you have?”
  • “What will show you that you have been successful?”
  • “What do you really want to achieve?”

If you don’t know the answers to these questions for each recipient, you are probably making noise rather than communicating.

Moving from Noise to Communication

If your noise is not helping the recipient achieve something in line with their actual values, then they are politely making noises and gestures so that they are not seen as rude – but they will not change because of your noise.

If your communication is entirely concerned with what you want, then it is definitely noise.


What I need from you:

I don’t know if this blog is noise or communication.  I would like to know more about you: What do you like about this blog?  What is not working so well?  What would you change?  What objectives do you have that I could write more about?  I would love if you would take a minute and leave a comment today.  The comments section is here (if you are reading via rss, email, newsletter).


15 Questions To Ask Your Kids To Help Them Have Good Mindsets

David William wrote this post at Lifehack, but I find that I have gone back a couple of times now to find these questions.  I was on a bike ride along Tibidabo mountain last night with my daughter (8) and I asked her a couple of these questions.  I get some profound answers.

Jim Collins says that we should be constantly increasing our Questions to Answers ratio.  A question means I am open and curious and learning.  An answer is saying what I already know.

Here are the 15 questions that David shared:

15 Questions that Create Profound Discussions with my Daughter

  1. What five words do you think best describe you?
  2. What do you love doing that makes you feel happiest?
  3. What do you know how to do that you can teach others?
  4. What is the most wonderful/worst thing that ever happened to you?
  5. What did you learn from the best/worst thing that’s happened to you?
  6. Of all the things you are learning, what do you think will be the most useful when you are an adult?
  7. If you could travel back in time three years and visit your younger self, what advice would you give yourself?
  8. What are you most grateful for?
  9. What do you think that person feels?
  10. What do you think your life will be like in the future?
  11. Which of your friends do you think I’d like the most? Why?
  12. If you could grow up to be famous, what would you want to be famous for?
  13. How would you change the world if you could?
  14. How can you help someone today?
  15. If you could make one rule that everyone in the world had to follow, what rule would you make? Why?

More on The Art of Good Questions

#InspiringMondays: 3 Questions for the Week


Do you remember art class?  Photo Credit: Nina Matthews

My entrepreneurial friend David Tomas has a mission.  He calls it #InspiringMondays.  His mission is to build a company culture that has people as excited arriving to work on a Monday morning, as most people generally feel when they about to leave work on a Friday afternoon.

On this (potentially) inspiring Monday, I have 3 questions for you:

  1. What will you do differently for the first time in a long time?
  2. Who will you take action to build a deeper relationship with?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you use use your free time?

I would love your answers, ideas, reflections and links to powerful online resources in the comments below.  What’s your thinking?

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