Ad Florem Blog

If your meetings aren’t working, are you asking the wrong questions?


Recently, I was working with a group of senior leaders who all expressed their frustration about the lack of engagement with staff.

This was particularly noticeable during meetings, where the conversations were all one way and despite asking open questions to engage staff, they felt they just weren’t getting anywhere.

In my experience, when staff are disengaged or demotivated, there’s normally something a leader can do, and that usually involves looking at their own behaviour first! We dug a little deeper, and discovered they had all fallen into a similar trap.

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Asking the wrong kind of questions

The leaders realised that they had all settled into a “tell me what you’re up to” style meeting, where staff simply turned up and reported on their progress. Individuals weren’t invited to engage; instead, they were asked lots of questions starting with “Why?”

  • “Why have you done it?”
  • “Why is this not working?”
  • “Why isn’t this complete?”

Faced with a barrage of questions asking them to explain themselves, team members simply lacked the motivation to participate at a higher level.

To encourage the leaders to start thinking about how they could turn their meetings around, and to encourage their teams to value the time they shared together, we started to explore a different way to ask for information.

Interestingly, ‘why’ questions took the leaders back to the days of living at home with their parents, who were quick to point out when something important hadn’t been done:

  • “Why haven’t you tidied your room?”
  • “Why have you still not done your homework?”
  • “Why are you going out now, when you know you’ve got jobs to do?”

This brought back feelings of being interrogated by someone in ‘authority’ or a ‘hierarchy’ (aka their parents): a feeling of being told what to do, or being told off.

When I asked them how they responded to such questions themselves, they said they didn’t respond …they reacted!

Usually, this was being defensive, angry, frustrated, which left them with lots of thoughts running through their head, none of which had anything to do with getting things done! These ‘conversations’ usually lasted less than 30 seconds, felt very abrupt, didn’t make any progress towards completing the tasks (homework, jobs etc), and left them wanting to avoid any future ‘conversations’.

In other words, there was no engagement, no one valued the ‘conversation’, and no progress was made.

To say there were lightbulb moments is an understatement!

A room full of senior leaders sat shaking their heads as they thought about these examples and how they were replaying them with their staff.

They then wanted to know how they could change this; which was music to my ears. They had become aware of something they were doing, the negative impact it was having on themselves and others, and more importantly they wanted to change it!

So, we started to explore the alternative: starting questions with ‘what’ instead of ‘why’.

‘What’ questions are what I call ‘great questions’. They provoke the other person to think, feel or respond differently to the issue at hand. They give the other person a space in which they can step back and think about their own actions, or see things from a different perspective. ‘What’ questions bring about insights, clarity and, more importantly, a real shift in their thinking, feeling or behaviour based on personal ownership and responsibility.

Very different from the one-way interrogation of asking ‘why’, which results in frustration and a lack of engagement.

So, we ‘had a go’ at some conversations where the group only used questions beginning with ‘what’. They experimented with how many different ‘what’ questions could be made from a single ‘why’.

  • “Why did you do that?” became “What was your intention with that? What were the reasons for your choice?”
  • Why haven’t you done it?” turned into “What stopped you from completing the task/taking action?”
  • “Why have you changed it?” transformed into “What have you been up to? What have you already tried? What was standing in the way? What made you change it? What will you do differently next time?”

This quickly moved the leaders from shaking their heads at their recollections, to wearing huge smiles on their faces, as they could see the impact of making this one simple change to their meeting approach.

They had their ‘aha’ moment!

Switching their questions from ‘why’ to ‘what’ forced them to start a conversation with curiosity, encouraged the other person to think and share their experiences, and invited team members to take ownership of their tasks.

Turning your questions from “Why” into “What” can turn meetings from time-wasting routines into productive conversations and the perfect opportunity to improve your relationship with your team.

To discover how you can have better conversations with your team, contact Ad Florem