The integrity in asking questions


The scene: a lovely dinner and great conversation with a dear longtime friend.

We finished our meal and lingered over a discussion about what’s next for her. She’s not particularly attached to her current work and is exploring new experiences. A recent job posting at a university that involves coaching students to get ready for the workplace caught her eye. It spoke to her desire to pass along her extensive workplace experience to a younger generation.

She sipped her wine with a faraway look in her eyes, speaking about what it might be like to offer advice to students before they headed out to new jobs. I understand her desire to give of her experience. She’s a bright, dedicated woman who has a lot of wisdom to share.

The conversation turned to my own philosophy that smart people are perfectly capable of figuring things out for themselves in the way that works best for them and their particular circumstances, often without my advice.

I explained that my philosophy put into practice means that I believe that when I want to give advice, it’s a clue to me that I may be trying to “fix” someone or convince them to do things a certain way. It’s just at that moment when I’m tempted to give advice that I realize that asking the right question will help the other person to figure out their unique dilemmas and solutions.

And then my friend asked a great question.

“Where is the integrity in asking a question?”, meaning that I also have a lot of wisdom (and advice) that I can give to others. I often get hired as a coach because of my years of experience.

I’ve been thinking about that question since she asked it. It helped me to recognize that giving advice to someone turns the solution around to being about me and what I want for them. Asking a question makes the answers and solutions completely theirs.

Ask a question instead of giving advice

The next time you’re tempted to give someone advice, stop and consider asking a question that will make them think instead. Because if you truly believe others are perfectly wonderful, smart, whole, and free to make their own choices, a great question can help them to:

Think it through. A good question will help smart people to think, something that advice doesn’t do as well. This thinking is the beginning of self-motivation and dedication to whatever solutions they come up with.

Become curious and creative. Thinking through a good question fosters curiosity and creativity. Curiosity and creativity are the beginnings of innovation (and you want more innovation in your organization, right?).

Become self-responsible. When people find their own solutions, they can make a shift from self-interest to self-responsibility (what manager/leader doesn’t want that in others?).

Make wise choices and decisions. Sometimes mistakes will be made. Those mistakes offer another opportunity for you to have conversations that include questions to help others to learn from their errors.

If you believe that people are wonderful, smart, whole, and free to choose, asking questions is a form of respect for their ability to act in alignment with what’s best for them and your organization. Now that’s integrity!




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.

4 comments on “The integrity in asking questions

  1. Mary Jo, thank you for saying what some of us already know in a way that is both insightful and memorable. Learning how to ask the right questions is an art–listening to what is said and unsaid is equally important to the coaching process. Wherever I encounter you, I always learn from you. Thank you for being the role model you’ve always been.

  2. Yes % 100…
    Actually I tried this with some clients (as a business advisor) and that reflected great results.
    Really “man kind is the most important asset we have”.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. .

  3. Judy, I apologize for the delay in responding as your comment ended up in spam on my site (I fixed it). I agree that listening is as important or more so, than asking questions, and in fact, feel it is foundational to leading well! Thanks for your kind words. Hopefully when the weather permits we can get together.

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