Many organizations and leaders today default to an all-too-common communication norm: talking at their people. It’s usually not effective.

Consider “Jeff.” He’s the real-life chief operating officer of a name-brand company. On the plus side, Jeff is highly competent, involved in every aspect of his team’s work, and calls the shots. He’s “the answer guy” for every problem that comes up in the team he leads.

On the downside, Jeff developed a reputation for being “harsh, defensive and closed off.” His highly directive, bossy style kept his team grossly underdeveloped. As time ticked away, Jeff found himself in a state of constant exhaustion; he hadn’t taken time off in years because he felt he was indispensable.

Something had to give.

Thankfully, Jeff’s career changed when he started leading and communicating in a different way: through open-ended questions. Instead of talking at his people, his new approach was to ask, “Here’s the outcome we need. What do you think? How can we get there?”

Jeff began asking questions and listening to his team as if they were the experts. As a result, his team immediately started to thrive and grow professionally. His life as a leader changed, too.

Jeff’s turning point came when he realized that talking at his people was one of the worst ways to get them participating and motivated.

The Power of Asking Questions

Practical experience from leaders shows that questions are vastly superior if the goal is to generate more engagement: When somebody asks us a question (e.g., “What kind of car do you drive?”), our brains pause and become immediately preoccupied until we supply an answer.

Thanks to this hardwired physiology, a leader can change the focus of an entire meeting by simply asking one good question. By asking better questions, a leader can even transform a team’s culture.

When leaders ask good questions, it signals they care and that employees have some degree of autonomy and control of their work lives. Leaders who ask meaningful and respectful questions increase their team’s effectiveness, create more encouraging work relationships and better motivate their people.

The best news? Asking better questions is a learnable skill, just like anything else.

Not All Questions Are Created Equal

Researchers make a crucial distinction between two types of questions. Some questions are closed-ended. They’re designed to limit and constrain what people can talk about.

Other questions are open-ended. They liberate the constraints of the interaction and give people the freedom to choose what to reveal and what not to disclose. Many people, especially leaders who are on the go and putting out fires all day, use lots of closed-ended questions. They end up interrogating their people like lawyers in a courtroom instead of listening with an open mind.

Notice how these sample closed-ended questions can be answered in just one or two words:

  • Question: Have you been able to reach the clients?
  • Response: Yes.
  • Question: Did you receive my email about the proposal?
  • Response: I did.
  • Question: Did you go to the conference?
  • Response: Yes.

Although these questions may be helpful starting points, they’re ineffective at building and maintaining relationships and cultivating a positive team spirit.

The best leaders, instead, ask many open-ended questions.

Open-ended questions typically start with words like “how,” “what” or “why.” It’s difficult to answer these questions with one-word answers. Open-ended questions are more effective because they’re designed to invite the next speaker to talk openly and choose how much to reveal and what to say.

As Jeff’s team members experienced, open-ended questions allow employees to enter the conversation in meaningful ways and make genuine contributions.

Try flipping the script yourself. Consider these examples:

  • Rather than asking: Have you been able to reach the clients?
  • Ask: What’s the latest news with your clients?
  • Rather than asking: Did you receive my email about the proposal?
  • Ask: I’d like to hear more of your thinking on that proposal?
  • Rather than asking: Did you go to the conference?
  • Ask: How was the conference? What were some highlights?

See how these open-ended questions open the door to better communication? They give the other person more latitude to express themselves. They invite value-driven engagement.

When leaders, coaches and mentors ask open-ended questions, the climate in the relationship and on the team gets more interesting, open, personal and human.

Asking Positive Open-Ended Questions

Leaders can improve the quality of their open-ended questions even further by asking questions that naturally inspire and motivate employees.

Imagine how a typical one-on-one meeting between a supervisor and direct report might be transformed by asking questions like these:

  • What are some of your long-term personal and professional goals?
  • Who are your role models?
  • What do you need to thrive as a professional?

These are considered “positive questions” because they usually result in rewarding conversations for everyone involved. “Positive questions,” as researchers Niels Van Quaquebeke and Will Felps explained, “are more likely to yield positive results.”

At the team level, Van Quaquebeke and his colleagues offer additional sample questions leaders can draw on depending on the context:

  • When did you feel truly energized and engaged at work?
  • What conditions led to that moment?
  • What can you do in the next year to have more of those moments?

Questions like these can be used in performance reviews, one-on-one conversations, as team icebreakers, or integrated into company-wide activities, like off-site retreats.

Over time, asking more and better questions can transform your team’s culture. Moreover, there are benefits for you as a team leader, too.

Let’s revisit Jeff, the COO mentioned earlier. By leading through better questions, Jeff was finally able to step back and get “out of the weeds” of his team members’ day-to-day problem-solving. He became the radically transformed and inspiring leader he always wanted to be. Thanks to his team’s newfound engagement and climbing performance, Jeff took his first vacation in years without bringing his laptop or work phone.

Better questions are powerful — and are a win-win for everyone.