Constructive Questions

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Constructive questions are a tool for guiding a learner or a group toward self-explored solutions and options in a coaching style. We introduce four types of questions aimed at helping learners to envision options and opportinities for future action.


Supporting learner-led decisionmaking. Addressing the self-competences and the self-responsibility of participants. Focus on solutions and options.

General Rules for Questions

1. Be precise. Try not to ask too much at once.

2. Only one question once (prevent asking double questions)

3. Support your question with an appropriate body language (hand twoards the group, raising eyebrows, ...)

4. Stop with a question mark. Don't explain your question afterwards.

5. Leave time for thinking. Don't speed up after asking a question.

Focusing on Problems

When facing a challenge, people use one of two approaches. In the academic sphere, problem-orientation is very common: We test a hypothesis critically. This criticism helps us to understand the hypothesis’s complexity and we elaborate on it. At conferences, other people review it with a critical attitude. In public relations we often define ourselves as “critically thinking people.”

This problem-oriented approach can be helpful in under­standing, but it often causes conflicts. And too much focus on the critical approach often makes situations more complex. When none of the possible solutions can meet the ideal requirements, a general solution may become too challenging for an unit, a training or project.

Focusing on Solutions

The broad field of coaching literature, concentrates on the opposite approach: helping people to find and develop solutions not based on their problems, but rather on their abilities. In most cases, your participants are able to find solutions from among their problems. That being said, we do not want to overlook the productivity of critical observing. We do want to point out that being oriented on solutions helps a discussion to move forward. Moderating facilitators can support this with an optimistic attitude and an appreciation for the learners' existing abilities and findings. In example:

  • “What do you want to achieve?”
  • "Which options are available?"
  • “Tell me about the last time this positive development happened. How did you respond?“
  • “What do you need to avoid in order to achieve your goal?”
  • “What will you need to do differently if the situation changes?”

Open Questions

A closed-ended question requires a specific answer. An open-ended question encourages multiple possibilities. It leads to new findings and perspectives. Constructive questions start with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where”

One example: If a participant in a discussion or a mentee is complaining and you ask her yes-or-no questions, what will happen? “Are you having trouble with your work?” “No, not really…” “Problems with your family?” “No, not really…”

In contrast, an open-ended question puts the person into an active position of responsibility. The conversation can then take - in apositive way - unexpected turns.

  • “What makes you feel this way?”

Asking for Exceptions

Exceptions are the situations in which something different was done successfully. By paying attention to them, we can under­stand what has to be done differently. Then the way to the solution and to different behavior is not impossible to imagine.

  • “What you do different now?”
  • “What can you do so other people see the difference?”
  • “How has the situation changed?”
  • “What has to happen for this to take place more often?”

Reflecting Multiple Perspectives

Changing perspectives can help one observe a situation in its totality. Circular questions make complex relationships visible. Without being able to ask the people involved directly, we can better visualize how everyone works together and what their differences would be in the same situation.

  • "How do the other parties look on this situation?"
  • “What does your partner think about the situation?”
  • “What does your boss think?”
  • “How do your project partners observe this?”
  • “What would people have thought ten years ago?”


We support our participants by showing empathy. Coping questions help construct a solution-oriented focus when a group or a person looses it. Let’s take this as an example: “Where does your optimism come from?” Initially the person asked feels a sense of connection and appreciation. Then, he or she hears the question more precisely and asks him or herself: “Hmm, where does my optimism come from and what how can I make it something reliable for myself in different situations?”

  • “How did you manage all this?”
  • “Where does your energy come from?”
  • "Where does your optimism come from?”
  • “Why aren’t things worse?”


Scaling shows us where our goals fall along a scale. Where our initial positions are and what distance we have to cross to get there. When one uses scaling, one can talk concretely about what has to happen in the future in order to make progress along the scale. Or to reach the goal.

The combination of different scales can help us to analyze complex problems or to take stock of different aspects of a situation. Scales can be used with: teams, personal goals, outcomes, partnerships...

  • “Imagine a scale from 1 to 10. 1 is the lowest level 10 means, the problem is solved – where are you at the moment?”
  • “Where are you NOW on the scale?”
  • “How did you get there?”
  • “What will be the next step?”
  • “What has to happen to take the next step on the scale?”

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. He writes and works on the topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Coordinator of European projects, in example DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship, DARE network.

Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience.