In coaching, I often think about how to ask a person questions so that I can understand more of his world. Sometimes it feels as if there are not enough details, or I don’t quite see a situation from her point of view.

In this case, it’s natural to want to ask, “Is there anything more you can tell me?”

But that question is often a dead-end because to a degree it presupposes that, um, no, there’s not anything more that the person can tell me. “Well is there any other way that you could structure your day so that you have healthier food around you?” Um, no, not really, I’m already doing everything I can think of.

Try this question:
“What is some other way that you could structure your day so that you have healthier food around you?”

What did I do differently here?
1) I made it an open-ended question. “What is some way …?” as opposed to “Is there …?”
2) I asked about some way as opposed to any way.

I know this sounds silly – it’s just ONE WORD. On the other hand, you unburden the word by making it open: SOME vs. ANY. You put a new pre-supposition in there. The assumption is that there is some way. Or perhaps together we could think of some way.

“What are some new ways that we could approach this company and this department if you want a job here?”

“Well, I’ve already talked to my contacts there, and I’ve approached the person who has the same responsibilities as me.”

“What might be some other ways?”

“Well, I could contact someone else.”

“Great, who might be some other people that you could contact? What might their roles be? What might they be involved with at the company?”

The openness of “some” and of open-ended “what” questions can move you closer to something true that leads to action. Enjoy!

One Comment

  1. Posted Thursday July 26, 2007 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I really like this post Senia. I often fall into this trap of asking “meta” questions, i.e. is there anything else, have i missed anything, etc. that do not yield any type of valuable response. I had never thought about the fact that the question presupposes the possibility that there is nothing else – it’s at least equally valid to the possibility that there is. This post is a good reminder that careful wording and assumptions often return a better result.

    On the flip side, I find that the specific words in questions are often less important than the tone in which they are asked. If a doctor asks me, in a gruff, rushed tone, is there anything else bothering you – i probably won’t respond, even if his wording had supposed there was something missing, i.e. can you tell me some more things that might be bothering you.

    Furthermore, supposing that there is something missing might give us more information, but it might not be useful if it is really “digging.” I’m thinking here of when I ask my wife: “what’s REALLY bothering you?” Most people want to answer questions appropriately, I think, and if the person asking assumes there is something more, a respectful answerer might simply make something up.