Ask Good Questions

Ask Good Questions

By Betsy Barbieux, CAM, CFCAMTM / Published July 2017


While learners may be good listeners and move their relationships to a deeper level, learning how to ask good questions benefits even more. Asking good questions can help clarify a misunderstanding, resolve an issue, and hopefully bring opposing sides closer together.

Dean James Ryan, speaking at the 2016 Harvard Graduate School of Education, said, “Good friends, as you know, ask great questions, as do good parents. They pose questions that, just in the asking, show how much they know and care about you. They ask questions that make you pause, that make you think, that provoke honesty, and that invite a dee-per connection. They ask questions that don’t so much demand an answer as they prove (to be) irresistible. My simple point is that posing irresistible questions is an art worth cultivating.”

But the questions need to be good questions. Yes, the key is good questions; not mean ones. It has been said that no question is a dumb question. Well, that might be true, but if you are standing out in the rain and asking, “Is it raining?”…

I believe we could all agree there are different types of questions likely generated by different motives:

  • Innocent questions—the three-year old asking, where do babies come from?
  • Casual questions—is it supposed to rain today?
  • Pondering questions—hum, I wonder what that means?
  • Routine questions—where do you want to eat?
  • Criticizing questions—why did you do that?
  • Condemning questions—how could you do that to me?
  • Mean questions—did you really intend to wear that?
  • Condescending questions—was that Harvard (Yale or Princeton) sticker on the car when you bought it?
  • Important questions—where are you going to college?
  • Critical questions—will you marry me?
  • Life-changing questions—should I have that surgery?
  • Honest questions—about finances, economics, child rearing, politics, religion, and relationships.
  • Profound questions—did I get out of life what I wanted?
  • Deeply personal questions—why am I here?

Another category of questions might be classified as conflict resolution questions. These are questions that clarify an issue and explore options and resolutions as well as foster learning. This type of question could be the most relevant type for managers and boards of directors.

Most would agree it takes so long to make a decision in a community association. Sometimes it’s because a few board members have personal agendas. Other times, it’s the limitations imposed by statute to have open meetings of the board of directors. And there is always the breakdown of the communication thread because board members have lives to live, too, and managers have more than one iron in the fire!

Then you add to the decision-making process that each person involved has a different communication style. Some are fast-paced decision makers, others reluctant. Some make decisions based on keeping the peace, others on the documented facts. Then you add passion and emotion, which often morph into anger when making decisions that affect owner and board members’ homes, perceived rights, and wallets.

So, what might these conflict resolution questions be? Again, Dean James Ryan gives his ideas of five good questions.

“Wait? What?”

This is a great question to clarify something you just heard. It is often followed by, “Say that again.” Instead of shutting down or shooting holes into the comments someone else just made, be curious. Ask for clarification.

“So, I wonder why?” or “so, I wonder if?”

The first of these indicates curiosity. More information and dialogue is possible. (By the way, unless there is an indication of curiosity, there is no need to keep talking or give additional information or lecture.) The second begins moving the conversation into an exploration phase of possible improvements. This question moves the thought process into the future.

“Couldn’t we at least?”

This begins moving forward those conversations that have gotten stuck. It is a question that could move into some basic consensus building. Now the conversation can continue even if there is not agreement on the details; at least progress has been made.

“How can I help?’

This question is counter to the savior (or control freak) who steps in and takes over. This question acknowledges that there are other competent people involved in this decision making and indicates a degree of humility and receptivity to direction. Asking this question builds relationships.

“What truly matters?”

This question could be on a very personal level, but let’s focus it on what truly matters to the group. What truly matters in the long run? What is the end goal? It is possible that this could be the first question and the last!

Let’s try it with a very simple conversation between Tony and Pat while walking their dogs.

Tony (in a somewhat frustrated tone)—And I noticed the other day, there were a bunch of kids at the pool who didn’t seem to be supervised. But you know how it is these days. I can’t tell the difference between someone who is 12 and another who is 20. They all look young to me. I don’t know why we allow kids at the pool to begin with. I don’t even think they should live here. Should we call the police?

Pat (who had been casually listening, stops dead in the street)—Wait? What? I thought you were just complaining about the kids at the pool. Now you want to call the police?

Tony—Yeah, should we just kick them out of there?

Pat—So I wonder if the kids were really under age? Do you actually know that they were unsupervised? If so, I wonder why? What if you are all upset over nothing? Did you recognize any of them? I wonder if there is someone else who knows them?

Tony—Well, you have a point there. I don’t know all that for sure.

Pat—Before you go off half cocked and make a big to-do about nothing, could we at least check around to see if anyone else knows the kids?

Tony—Humph… Well, what do you suggest?

Pat—I’ll see Bud tonight; he’s at the pool a lot so I’ll ask him (I’ll help).

Tony—Hey, that’s a good idea. I’ll ask Liz. She knows everyone at the pool (I’ll help too).

Tony—After all, what we really want is everyone to be (Pat joining in) safe.

With a little practice, board members and managers can cultivate the art of asking good questions to resolve the many issues facing our communities.

Betsy Barbieux, CAM, CFCAM

Florida CAM Schools

Betsy Barbieux, CAM, CFCAM, guides managers, board members, and service providers in handling daily operations of their communities while at the same time dealing with different communication styles, difficult personalities, and conflict. Effective communication and efficient management are her goals. Since 1999, Betsy has educa-ted thousands of managers, directors, and service providers. She is your trainer for life! Betsy is the author of Boardmanship, a columnist in the Florida Community Association Journal, and a member of the Regulatory Council for Community Association Managers. For more information, contact, (352) 326-8365, or