Leadership: Seven useful questions

Written by: David Weston | Published:
Image: iStock

When challenges arise, the most inspirational school leaders use seven powerful questions to promote professional dialogue, encourage staff ownership and ensure clear communication. David Weston explains

Communication is the life-blood of an effective school. Dialogue needs to be honest: seeking objectivity, reducing bias and never covering up truths or views to make things “comfortable”. However, a habit of bad conversation stifles problem-solving, dampens enthusiasm and encourages the building of defensive routines.

As a leader there is always an enormous temptation to jump in and start giving advice without having really listened to the issue, without having sought several perspectives, and without leaving room for others to grow their own solutions.

The trouble is, however good your ideas are, they come with a big shiny sign that says “the boss likes this, I should prioritise her/his thinking above my own”. What we want is a culture where great ideas and great thinking can take root, driven by everyone. Here are seven questions which I think can help.

Question 1: “What’s on your mind?”

This is a great way to open a conversation – it signals that you are interested in what the other person is thinking, and that you are open to hearing concerns. It puts the ball in the other person’s court – they get to name the priority and they have control over the agenda. This question needs to be used together with question two...

Question 2: “Let me check I’ve understood. Are you saying (rephrase and summarise)?”

It is worth doing this check even if you are reasonably certain that you have understood. As you are listening to what is being said, you are automatically reinterpreting it to your own view of the world. It is useful to try and rephrase/summarise and check that a) you are on the right track and b) you have not missed something that is important to the other person. Sometimes, when I listen to people, some elements of their dialogue spring out at me, but when I summarise the overall meaning I discover that I have distorted or obscured some of the key meaning that the other person intended. This technique demonstrates that your first priority is listening and understanding, not to jump in and take over control of the problem or situation.

Question 3: “What’s the real challenge here for you?”

This is a lovely question which I recently read in The Coaching Habit: Say less, ask more and change the way you lead forever (Michael Bungay Stanier). It is helpful when someone has given you a laundry list of issues or concerns, or where someone has gone round in circles, or is being fuzzy. It forces the other person to search for the nugget that is really important, that matters most.

As Stanier says, the word real “implies that there are a number of challenges to choose from, and you have to find the one that matters most”. He adds: “Phrased like this, the question will always slow people down and make them think more deeply.” The words “for you” are “what pin the question to the person you’re talking to”. He continues: “It keeps the question personal and makes the person you’re talking to wrestle with her struggle and what she needs to figure out.”

Question 4: “It sounds like you’re frustrated/disappointed/angry with X. This suggests that you have a vision of what X should ideally be like, and it’s falling short. Could you describe that vision?”

This question allows people to start describing and fleshing out an alternative reality. I have found that colleagues often drift back quickly to describing the deficits – it takes quite a lot of gentle steering to get the other person to stay on “positive” first, while not making them feel you are ignoring the facts and emotions around the problems – e.g. “I can see that you find that frustrating. I’m keen to understand your ideal so that I can understand why the current situation is falling short.”

It allows them to imagine some light at the end of the tunnel and flip a negative conversation into one with more potential. Once the desired future is clear, it is much easier to see the path to get there.

Question 5: “Who could you ask to get helpful and different perspectives on this?”

This question serves multiple purposes. First, as a manager, your instinct is to give your perspective and try and solve the problem. This question interrupts that instinct and helps the other person to look elsewhere, using their own resourcefulness to do so. Second, it “zooms out”, reminding both of you that everyone sees the world from their own point of view, that everyone will be missing something, and that multiple perspectives are better than any one person’s view by itself.

It is not necessarily an easy question. If someone is feeling stressed and emotional then it is hard to zoom out. An invitation to do so may even sound like a criticism. It may be the right thing to do to simply “park the conversation” and say “it’s good to understand your point of view on this – can we take a break to allow us both to reflect?”. You can then come together when the tension is lower, summarise where you were and start the process of zooming out.

Question 6: “What’s the most helpful thing I can do right now?”

It may be that the other person simply wishes to make you aware of something. It may be they want a specific piece of guidance. Maybe they want some feedback. It puts the ball in the other person’s court to say what you should do. It also stops you from going into “telling” mode by default.

You have probably already helped by simply getting the other person to clearly articulate an issue and what the solution could look like, as well as sources of perspective and expertise. You might have (hopefully) sparked a sense of curiosity and drive to solve the problem.

Even if you are asked for an opinion you might sometimes say “let’s see what you come up with first as it might be better than any idea I come up with”, or “I could come up with some ideas but I’d rather hear yours first”. Note that it is worth avoiding signalling that you have ideas that you are simply hiding or else you could just encourage a game of “guess what’s in my boss’s head”.

Question 7: “When will we revisit and review this?”

Towards the end of a conversation you may both feel some relief that some difficult ground has been covered, or excitement that a seed has been sown. However, part of the reason that progress has been made is because you have a) paid attention to it, b) given permission for thinking and honesty and c) made it clear that the other person has ownership.

It is important to review and revisit ideas together, if only to continue to show that you are not just about to jump onto the field of play uninvited – nor end the game early and start a new one – but that you are still very interested and enthusiastic. You may have planted a seed and started an initiative because it is something you are excited about.


When school leaders lead with a coaching approach they make space for colleagues to learn and seize the initiative. Great professional development culture begins at the top, but the process is enabled from the bottom-up.


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