Explaining expectations is the first coaching habit of excellent leaders, but explaining is only a one-way process. To continue building reliable performance, ask questions to initiate two-way communication and engage your team. Coaching is more about asking questions than it is about knowing the answers. Managers tell while coaches ask. Business schools don't teach courses on asking questions, so leaders rarely, if ever, study questions the way they would study a financial report.

Additionally, most leadership training focuses on solving problems and identifying solutions, but excellent leaders also focus on asking questions. This skill better engages teams, and it also takes the pressure off the leader to know all the answers.

Questions are really the answer. Asking questions is a long-established practice to demonstrate respect, diffuse tense situations, obtain buy-in and make employees feel valued in a way that financial rewards cannot. Questions either expand or limit the solutions and creativity to seize opportunities and solve problems.

Last summer my family enjoyed a family trip to Greece. It is a land of boundless beauty and tremendous thinkers. While touring the Acropolis, our guide mentioned that while scheduling its restoration, time was built into each day for workers to spend time thinking! Imagine that happening almost anywhere else in the world.

Greece's history is built upon the minds of the world's greatest thinkers. One of them is Greek philosopher Socrates. Even though he's nearly 2,500 years my senior I am still on a first-name basis. Okay, he only had one name.

Today, Socrates is alive and well in excellent leaders. His Socratic method of questioning is a timely and timeless leadership tool for engaging teams and challenging thought processes. Asking questions is both selfless and self-serving. It demonstrates interest in your team while providing you with insights into their motivations, passions, challenges, assumptions, and aspirations. The next time you are tempted to tell your team what to do, take a lesson from Socrates and ask what they think instead.

Plenty of books are filled with lists of questions, but asking questions without a clear objective is like playing the question lotto. Very occasionally you might get lucky and win, but most of the time you will come up empty-handed. That's a loss for you and for your team member. There is rarely a right answer to a wrong question.

There are four main reasons to ask questions: to understand, assess, innovate and motivate. It is important to understand your objectives before you start asking. Within each objective, your question might focus on the person or the project/process.

For example, if you want to understand, most leaders jump directly to questions that help them understand their team's projects and processes by asking:

  • What's the goal?
  • What's the plan?
  • What are your options?

However, excellent leaders start with questions to help understand their people, such as:

  • In which areas would you like to grow?

  • What do you love to do?

  • What do you need to be at your very best?

Showing genuine interest in your employees as people is the foundation of a fully engaged team. Theodore Roosevelt summed it up nicely when he said, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." If you need to motivate your people to action, you might ask:

  • What needs to happen for this to succeed?

  • What do you think the next steps should be?

  • What's in it for you and the team if this is wildly successful?

Certain coaching questions work in almost any situation. These are some of my favorites that I have heard excellent leaders ask:

  • What do you think?

  • Why do you think this is happening?

  • What can we start, stop and keep to improve?

  • And what else? (Repeated as a prompt to obtain more details.)

  • Is this your very best work? (My mentor asks me this!)

So, before you ask your next question, ask yourself, "What's the purpose?"