The neuroscience of asking insightful questions

I teach coaching skills to leaders. When I get to the section on how to ask questions (an important part of learning to coach) I might ask a trick question to start off: “How many of you are good at solving problems?”. Without fail, almost all hands shoot enthusiastically into the air.

There’s nothing wrong with being good at problem solving. Except when it gets in the way of preventing the people you lead to learn and develop. Because when you solve problems for the people who report to you, those people don’t get a chance to do their own thinking or take ownership of the solutions you’ve handed to them. Creativity becomes stunted and learning is stalled because those very smart people you lead don’t get to think on their own.

Asking an insightful question instead helps them to focus on what THEY want to do. When that insight happens, they can move forward  through with clarity and commitment.

There are plenty of reasons to ask more questions like “What would you do?” or “What possibilities do you see here?” (and you might note that these are open-ended thinking-provoking questions, not solutions disguised as questions). The most compelling reasons to ask rather than tell may be grounded in the scientific study of the nervous system aptly named “neuroscience”.

Here is the short version of what happens when you ask an insightful question of one of your employees:

Neuroplasticity: The first thing you need to know is that the brain isn’t hard-wired like an electrical appliance. If it was, people would be stuck doing things the way they’ve always done them forever. Enter something called neuroplasticity, which means our brains can physically change to encourage creative thinking and new knowledge. The neurons can move into new locations in our brain when we learn. Questions can act as a catalyst for our brains to change and move forward with new insight.

Reflection: When you ask a question instead of giving the answer, the entire brain gets active as it reflects, releasing serotonin (allowing it to relax). This encourages gathering intelligence from all areas of the brain, allowing for more insight than would happen if you provided solutions to others. New neuronal connections begin to be made as the brain moves closer to finding solutions.

Action: As serotonin is released, a rush of energy (or insight) occurs as the brain fires up, moving ahead and discovering the solutions to a problem. The person who is the recipient of the question becomes motivated and ready to do something. This burst of energy to take care of the problem is short lived, so you can help by asking them to commit to doing something later. And then you can ask them how they’ll stay accountable to their commitment.

When someone is stuck, ask an open-ended, insightful question! The brain becomes activated, and will find the best way to help it to discover the solution. And the funny thing is, it might be even better than one you would have thought of. Brilliant.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

6 comments on “The neuroscience of asking insightful questions

  1. That’s great Tim. Let me know how it goes. You can search my blog using the search tool for more information on questions too.

  2. It was great to see your post that reminds leaders to give others thinking time through the use of posing questions skillfully; the higher-level thinking that becomes possible to have shared is a wonderful reward for all parties in the equation.

  3. Not a new concept… harkens back to the Socratic method; but solid advice anyway. This is how I used to teach History and later, math class.

  4. Hi Christopher,

    Definitely not a new process, but due to the wonder of fMRI scans, we’re able to understand the science behind how “Socratic” questions work in the brain. Glad you used it at as a teacher – I’ll bet your students learned well from you.

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