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Ask the right questions to reach best solutions

An original article by Kim Harrison,

Author and Principal of

Some of the most powerful influencers achieve results by asking questions. They either ask probing questions to individuals and groups, or they work through a formal process of facilitation in meetings and work groups. They don’t impose their own views on others; they just ask a series of thought-provoking questions to guide others to reach their own well considered solutions.

Group facilitation is a form of listening. It is a collaborative process in which a person seeks to assist a group of individuals to discuss constructively various matters or issues that can be complex, or even potentially controversial. The group’s views and conclusions are a valuable input into the decision making process.

In this era, listening is a key requirement of good communication. But too many of us just want to get our own message out without finding out what message recipients want. This has historically been the case, but is changing. The two-way nature of social media is the outstanding example of the feedback loop. People and organizations are now obliged to take notice of comments from others because that feedback can cause organizational crises. Instead of just pushing messages, organizations need to respect their stakeholders by listening more to their views.

I’ve seen the benefits myself. In fact I did it myself in business facilitation about 12 years ago when I did some business coaching. The whole coaching method was based on facilitation and was extremely effective. Rather than telling people what to do, the facilitator helps people reach their own conclusions based on their own knowledge and experience.

This approach is effective in both in-house communication roles as well as in PR firms with clients. If you explore an issue or problem by asking questions, you can lead to better outcomes. Asking questions is especially useful if you disagree with the other person or group, or if it is not appropriate to push your opinions on the others such as senior management. This means you don’t have to argue with them. By asking questions, you can lead them to form conclusions themselves.

What’s more, asking enough good questions is often the key to creativity. Some of the most creative people in the world say information gathering is the key to creativity, and that listening well and persisting with questions is central to identifying big creative ideas.

What kind of questions to ask?

Try to ask the right kind of questions. Never hesitate to ask questions for clarification, questions to probe purpose or assumptions or even questions about the question.

Asking questions, even dumb ones, helps to create greater focus on the overall subject and obliges the other person to think in more depth about the subject. Asking questions allows you to:

  • Distinguish fact from opinion

  • Consider the relevance

  • Seek alternative viewpoints

  • Be aware of persuasion techniques

  • Recognize biases

  • Weigh the data carefully

  • Ask others to critique

Breanne Potter, who writes Pearson's Critical Thinking Blog, offers 70 questions to help you ask key questions of yourself and others in your quest to find the best solution. You can refer to this list as a quick guide to core issues. By keeping it handy, you can use it to drill down on any subject and impress others:

  1. What is the problem?

  2. What is the goal?

  3. What information is essential?

  4. What do we know for sure?

  5. What don’t we know?

  6. What is the source of this information?

  7. Is this fact or opinion?

  8. Are we asking the right questions?

  9. Who else does this problem/situation affect?

  10. Who else should be involved in this decision?

  11. Can we re-frame the problem?

  12. Can we view this from another perspective?

  13. Have we played “devil’s advocate?”

  14. Can we verify the information? Ask “how do you know that?”

  15. What are the alternatives?

  16. What assumptions have we made?

  17. Have we sought out opposing information?

  18. Is there another way to interpret the data?

  19. What have I taken for granted?

  20. Are we trying to reach a conclusion too quickly?

  21. Are we avoiding making a decision?

  22. What is the big picture?

  23. How are my emotions affecting my thoughts?

  24. Does the problem make sense?

  25. Are we putting our own interests in front of others’?

  26. Does our conclusion follow from the evidence?

  27. Why?

  28. Can we test this idea?

  29. Have we tried this before?

  30. What is the worst case scenario?

  31. Can I disprove my own argument?

  32. Have I asked the right questions?

  33. What would the stakeholders say?

  34. What will my boss think?

  35. What will my competitors think?

  36. What will my customers think?

  37. Have I let my gut feelings direct my thoughts?

  38. What patterns can I identify?

  39. Have I fairly weighed the pros and cons?

  40. What are the risks?

  41. What are the future implications?

  42. Am I being distracted by nonessential information?

  43. Do I have control over the outcome?

  44. Does anyone involved have a hidden agenda?

  45. Is the source credible?

  46. Is my perspective the only credible perspective?

  47. If I proceed with my idea, what might be the conclusion?

  48. If I do not proceed with my idea, what might be the conclusion?

  49. Am I trying to accomplish too much?

  50. Am I focusing on trivial issues rather than the big picture?

  51. Am I in a position to make this decision?

  52. Is the argument fair?

  53. Is the argument relevant?

  54. Is the argument credible?

  55. Do the advantages outweigh the risks?

  56. Who is responsible for what and when?

  57. Do we know when to implement Plan B?

  58. Do we know what success will look like?

  59. What is the question we’re trying to answer?

  60. What am I being asked to believe?

  61. Have I clearly articulated my argument?

  62. Is the evidence consistent or is there ambiguity?

  63. When did the problem start?

  64. Are we censoring possible ideas?

  65. What has changed about the situation?

  66. Is this a strategic issue or a tactical one?

  67. Is improvement possible?

  68. Are we choosing the best choice or the best choice available right now?

  69. What is missing from the discussion?

The 70th question is for you.  What is missing from this list?

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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