The best questions to ask to engage team members

Treat these important questions like traffic signals.

The best questions to ask to engage team members

Good communication is a two-way street, where all sides take turns talking and listening. Questions are the traffic signals that direct participants toward their destination. According to Harvard ManageMentor, “Coaching is a dialogue, and asking questions is an important way to spark additional thinking.”

Giving team members a chance to explain themselves not only makes them more comfortable, it also allows them to reflect on their decisions by outlining the thoughts behind their actions. And because few managers have all the answers, leaders can also benefit from the greater understanding that comes from a question-based dialogue. 

Open-ended questions 

The most powerful questions in the coaching toolbox are those that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Open-ended questions require an opinion or an explanation. By their nature, responses can’t be right or wrong. Asking enough open-ended questions will penetrate even the most cautious and guarded team members, often leading to productive conversations.

Some examples of open-ended questions include: 

  • What are your goals over the next several months? 

  • What do you consider the most important aspect of this project? 

  • What might that strategy look like? 

“Why” questions 

“Why” is just another example of an open-ended question. But it’s such a unique open-ended question that it qualifies for its own entry. In fact, Harvard ManageMentor recommends that “why” questions be avoided wherever possible because those questions can be perceived as judgmental, even if that is not the questioner’s intent. Many people also assume “why” questions only have a single right answer, so they will limit themselves to saying only what they think is acceptable. Fortunately, many “why” questions can be refashioned into neutral, open-ended questions. 

Some examples of reframing “why” questions include: 

Instead of: Why did you do that?  

Try: How did you arrive at this decision?  

Instead of: Why do you take on so much work by yourself? 

Try: Tell me about your relationships with other team members. 

Instead of: Why are you late?

Try: Tell me what your day outside of work looks like.