Five Dysfunctions of a Question: And How to Avoid Then

broken-question-501So many dysfunctions, so little time….

As a professional coach, I get to ask a lot of questions. For each brilliant one that makes things clear for my client and provides me deep insight into what they’re working on, I ask many others that are less than brilliant.

Here are some thoughts about five of the potholes I’ve driven into more times than I care to admit, my five dysfunctions.  I know that there are many, many, more, and would love to hear about your favorite ones. Write me a comment.  Make it a conversation!

1.  Asking from undetermined or inflexible status


In his excellent book, Humble Inquiry (Schein 2013), Edgar Schein defines three forms of humility which stem from three separate forms of relative status between the asker of the question and the receiver of the question. In a more traditional environment, we naturally give status to someone who is more experienced, more wealthy, born to a higher social class, or some other preordained reason for considering that person and a higher status than our own. Schein calls that first form of humility “basic humility”.  In these situations, we may not feel that we have the right to ask the tough questions.

In cultures more like those of current European or North American cultures, we tend to grant status based on what other people have achieved. For example, if someone who has achieved a higher academic level or a professional than we have, we may refer to them as “Dr.”,  “Professor”, “Reverend” or some other title of respect.  Schein calls that “optional humility”.  Similar to basic humility, this status difference may inhibit our level of curiosity and candor.  We don’t want to look uninformed or less competent.

The third form he calls “here and now” humility. This humility is driven by a short-term dependence by the question asker on the answer giver.   Often, in situations where there is mutual need, that dynamic may shift back and forth, as each participant is asking questions relative to their specific need. There is a potential pothole here, if both participants don’t come to the conversation understanding their need, understanding how the other person can help them meet their need, and if they are not sufficiently flexible to give and take humility as the conversation demands. Said another way, they are stuck in some pre-existing status.

How to avoid them:

Know what you need and ask questions to understand what others need.

Know what you want to meet your need.

Be aware of any status bias you might have, and be confident in your questions.

2. Asking from lack of presence


Ever catch someone zoning out, and then struggling to respond to a question, and pose another?  Maybe they were distracted, continuously checking their watch, or noticing when their phone vibrated or the text sound was going off?  Did they answer a question you didn’t ask?  Not keeping pace with what you’ve said or the question you posed?  Leave you wondering where they were, or what they were thinking?  Pretty clear that they weren’t tuned into you and the conversation you were trying to hold.

How to avoid them:

If this is you, make sure you clear your calendar, turn your phone off, and otherwise clear your mind and your environment to be fully there.  If you can’t, be honest, and ask to reschedule.

If this is your partner, don’t be a victim!  Let them know you notice that they must have something important going on and offer to reschedule.  If they’re not there, shame on them.  If you sit there, fail to graciously notice their inattention, and offer them an escape route, then shame on you!

3.  Asking from a fixed point of view


You go in with a fixed mindset.  You know you’re right.  You’re fishing for the answer you want.  Maybe you’ve prepared a few clever questions that lead to that answer.   You already know the answer to the question and you’re using a question to set up a dialogue stream that you’re hoping for.  Some of your questions sound like they come from a legal drama.  You feel like you want to argue with them because they’re not taking the bait and coming to your conclusion.

How to avoid them:

Focus more on asking from curiosity to understand something you don’t.

It’s ok to have a goal for the conversation, but it works out best if you ask questions that lead to better understanding.  If you understand the questions, and the significance to your client’s objectives, you’re much more likely to be ready to follow the conversation, add value, and get them interested in you and how you can help them.

Once they’re engaged, and you’re well enough prepared to have an open conversation with them, good things happen.  The path forward is much more clear for you and them.  … and you haven’t had to pull them along by their nose.  

4.  Cross Examining


You believe you’re right and you’re asking questions with the intent to prove them wrong.  Some of your questions sound like “gotcha” questions.  They are reacting to you defensively, as if they don’t trust you.  They act like they see you as argumentative.

How to avoid them:

Resist asking questions with the express intent of teeing up an opportunity to tell, to show how smart you are.

Allow for the fact that you may not be right, and that they may bring new truth to the discussion

5.  Asking without prior investment


Your partner seems ill at ease, maybe guarded or defensive.  They’re answering in very short sentences or just yes or no.  They don’t seem to get the point of your questions, and ask you to restate them.  Your questions take longer than the answer.  Your questions seem to ramble, as if you’re framing them on the fly. Maybe you change directions in the middle of a question, back up and start over.  You ask complex multi-part questions, maybe a hypothetical thrown in with some if-then logic for a grace note.

How to avoid them:

Invest in understanding your partner.  Have a plan for the questions you want to ask.  Would they see the relevance of the question to challenges they are likely facing?

Do some homework on their key industry trends and connect what you know about them to get a conversation started.

Frame your questions in an open form, without a clear answer, and something that will stretch them to answer.

Ask your question as simply as you can. Avoid rambling questions with multiple components.  Great questions have a little bit of set up, and then are very short, maybe just a few words.

Make the questions relevant to what they just told you.  The best questions flow logically out of something they said, so no set up is necessary.  Think of a tennis match where the ball is returned back and forth over the net smoothly.  Like a dance, the players are sensing where the flow is taking them.


When the flow of questions and the dialogue is natural and they’re opening up to you, that’s your sign that you have done your homework, you’ve earned their trust and credibility, and you’re ready to work with them to find the win-win.

Good Reads:

Schein, E. (2013). Humble Inquiry. Oakland, CA, Berrett-Koehler.