The Grammar of a Good Question

Since September is back-to-school month, I will give a free grammar lesson on Modal Auxiliary Verbs.  A Modal Auxiliary Verb is a verb that combines with another verb to indicate mood or tense and is used to express necessity, uncertainty, or permission.  Examples of these verbs include:  can, could, may, might, ought, and shall.

Why am I focused on verbs and grammar?  Simply this:  the key to coaching performance is to use strong, reflective questions to probe for insights and analysis.  A good question makes one stop and think; it helps to connect disconnected dots and examine thoughts in a new light.

I like to carefully select my verbs to promote open, non-defensive responses on performance issues.  When I coach a business leader who is struggling with ways to improve performance, I will ask:

  • What might you have done differently (in a situation that did not work out)
  • What shall you do tomorrow to improve …
  • What could you do …

If I ask “what might you do” I open up possibilities and promote divergent thinking.  If I ask “what will you do” I ask for specific intent and generate convergent thinking.  Asked at the wrong moment, “will” questions can close down discussion prematurely and can make a person defensive about their actions.

I like to create a list of question that guide a coaching session through both divergent and convergent thinking on an issue.  Try this yourself:  build a set of questions using might, shall, and ought.  Make a second set using will, must, and have to.  See how different the answers to each set of questions will be. Then deploy the right question at the right time to promote new insight and learning.