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  • Janeen Shaffer, PCC

The Power of “What?” Questions

I have the pleasure of working with many smart, analytical, and strategic clients. By nature, they tend to ask questions to better understand what is being shared with them, to gauge if certain scenarios or perspectives are being considered, and to navigate conversation to a solution-oriented approach. In a work setting, you may notice that you ask more “why” or “when” questions of your team and peers when you are in a negative situation. This may happen in cases where you have to gather information to explain why something is over budget, over time or has caused a client issue. Or, you may be an individual that asks more questions than others in order to gather helpful information to make recommendations or propose a different approach. Whether it is your analytical mind or problem-solving skills that is driving your questions, you may notice that people on the receiving end may get defensive and impatient. People on the receiving end of “why” or “when” questions and/or a volume of questions can feel interrogated or that their value and intelligence is being questioned. How can you ask questions that bring out helpful information, get to the underlying issues, and provide opportunities for people to feel heard, engaged, and respected? Start asking more “what” questions. “What?” helps you get to the heart of an issue and provide more context. “Why?” tends to give you a surface level and/or defensive response. Here are some examples to begin incorporating “what” more into your approach.

Examples of turning “Why?” into What?”:

  • Why did you do that? … What were some reasons or indicators that drove you to try that option?

  • Why is that your recommendation? … What information helped you suggest that recommendation?

  • Why are you late for the deadline? … What are the challenges you are coming across that are preventing you from meeting the deadline?

  • Why did the client say ‘no’? … What are the reasons you believe drove the client to say ‘no’?

  • Why are you stressed? … What is causing you to be stressed?

  • Why is the budget different from the last report? … What factors are causing a difference in the budget?

  • Why are your results different from our agreement? … What is causing these results to be different than our agreement?

  • Why can’t you attend the meeting? … What is causing a conflict with attending the meeting?

  • Why should we try that?… What would happen if we tried this option?

Examples of good “What?” questions to have available:

  • What is possible?

  • What do you think is best?

  • What have you tried so far?

  • What other angles can you think of?

  • What else?

Examples of “What?” questions that can cause a defensive response:

  • What did you do?

  • What were you thinking?

  • WTF?

As you think of a powerful “what” question to ask, it is helpful to remember your intention in asking the question. For most people, their intention is to pull out information that helps them better understand what is driving decisions or behaviors. When you understand your intention, then you can think of “What?” questions that will best help you get the information. As a next step, I suggest you can begin by asking one or two “What” questions in your upcoming meetings. See what you notice in the tone of the conversation, the information that is shared, and the solutions that come up in the conversation. What do you have to lose?

Janeen Shaffer is a PCC certified coach helping individuals and leaders with their internal development and external performance. If the article resonated with you, follow me on LinkedIn and check my other articles. Contact me at,, IG @janeen.shaffer, Pinterest Shaffer Coaching + Consulting.


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