F is for Finding Out About A Person By Asking Follow Up Questions  

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Imagine you are going to have a conversation with somebody or you are interviewing them for a role.

The first thing you say or the question you ask will set the tone for the conversation. You can then explore further by building on what they say or by asking follow up questions.

Sometimes taking this step can help to build and enrich the relationship. You may, for example, invite a person to describe a positive experience they have had or encourage them to talk about their goals. Sometimes you may help them to explore creative solutions to challenges.

Good follow up questions can also help to provide a reality check to clarify what a person really means. This can be especially useful when interviewing candidates who apply for jobs or when talking with people who make sweeping statements.

Today’s fast moving world has encouraged people to use sound bites or speak in generalities. Such concepts can be alluring but sometimes it is can be useful to invite them to give concrete examples.

Political leaders, for example, often speak in slogans. When asked to explain, they jump to giving another slogan. Sometimes it is important to stop them and explore the implications of what they are saying.

Good interviewers, for example, invite the politician to explain how their idea would be translated into action. They also ask them to explain the consequences – the pluses and minuses – of making this happen.

When interviewing a politician who is talking in sound bites, for example, they may say something like the following.

Let’s explore this with you a little further. As far as I understand it, you are suggesting doing the following …? Is that right?

I understand the principle, so let’s look at how this may work in practise. How would you translate this principle into action? What would you actually do to implement the idea?

What would be the consequences of taking these steps? What would be the pluses and the minuses? How would you deal with the consequences?

Follow up questions can help us to do a reality check. So let’s explore this process of asking questions to find out more about a person.

The First Question Sets The Tone

The first things we say in a conversation or the first question we ask can set the tone for the interaction. Looking at your own life, for example, you could start by asking a person either of the two sets of questions outlined below. Each would set a different tone for the conversation.

You could ask a person:

What do you enjoy doing? What are your strengths – the activities in which you deliver As, rather than Bs or Cs? What do you want to do in your life?

Or you could ask them:

What do you get frustrated about? What are your weaknesses? What are the obstacles you face in life?

In the TED Talk shown below, Robyn Stratton-Berkessel describes the power of asking positive questions. You can ask a person either:

What was the best thing that happened to you today?


What was the worst thing that happened to you today?

The question you ask sets the tone for the conversation.

Different people use follow up questions in different ways. Let’s consider two examples.

The first explores how to help a person find their successful patterns. The second explores how to clarify what a candidate will actually do if they get a role. It invites them to move from concepts to concrete actions.

Clarifying what a person has done in  the past – and
maybe can
do in the future – to achieve peak performance

Much of my own work has focused on people’s strengths and successful patterns. This sometimes involves inviting a person to describe the following things.

The specific times when they have performed brilliantly in the past.

The specific things they did then – the principles they followed and how they translated these into action – to perform brilliantly. 

The specific things they can do to follow these principles – plus maybe add other skills – to perform brilliantly in the future.  

Imagine that you want to use this approach on yourself to, for example, clarify how you can perform well as a leader. There are many different kinds of leaders. There are people leaders, creative leaders, thought leaders and other kinds of leaders. Every person has their own style of leadership.

Bearing this in mind, it can be useful to find and follow your successful leadership style. One way to do this is by exploring your positive history. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme.

This invites you to do three things: a) To describe when you have led things successfully and what you did right then; b) To look for recurring patterns and clarify your successful leadership style; c) To clarify how you can follow this style in future. Here is the exercise.

Describe the specific times when
you have led something successfully

Looking back at your life, when you have led something successfully? These could have been big or small events. They could have been personal or professional.

You may have been leading a specific project, a team or whatever. If possible try to think of two or three examples. Here are some that other people have described.

I led something successfully when:

I put together a team to solve a problem for a client … I organised a half marathon at university … I was captain of my country’s under 16 football team … I led the launch of a software package … I made a film for charity … I created an induction programme for my company.

Describe what you did right then – the principles you
followed – to lead each of these things successfully

Looking at each example in turn, what did you do right to lead it successfully? Some of your answers may sound repetitive, but don’t worry about that.

Some may also sound rather conceptual. If so, try to bring these to life with specific examples of what you actually did. Here are some that people have described.

The specific things I did then were:

I chose to do something I felt passionately about … I set myself a clear goal … I spent a lot of time clarifying the ‘What’ before moving to the ‘How’ … I agreed with my boss on the results to be delivered.

I put together a team of people who wanted to achieve the goal … I communicated to people the qualities they must demonstrate to reach the goal and then gave them chance to decide if they wanted to opt in … I put the right people in the right places where they could play to their strengths.

I kept my boss informed about our progress along the way … I had a team of people who were good at overcoming setbacks … I kept people’s eyes on the overall goal … I ensured that people achieved the goal and then added that touch of class.

So what did you do right? What were the principles you followed? How did you translate these into action? What did you – and other people – actually do?

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Describe your successful leadership style

Looking at the things that you have led successfully, can you see any patterns? If so, describe what you think might be your successful leadership style.

One person I worked with found that their pattern was clear. He loved building prototypes. Sometimes he had done this within the company he was working in at the time. Other times he had found an employer who wanted to change the rules of the game in their particular industry.

Looking at when he had done such work, we explored the recurring patterns that made up his successful leadership style. This was:

To find a place where he could build a successful prototype.

To agree on the goals with his key stakeholders.

To set a deadline to work towards – because that was how he worked best – and for this to involve some sort of public launch.

To get some quick wins that reassured his stakeholders.

To use these wins to buy time but also ensure he had the autonomy required to reach the goals.

To build a team of committed people who wanted to achieve the goal.

To explain the professional deal clearly to people before they joined the team – they needed to know what they could and could not expect – then decide if they wanted to join.

To play to his strengths – strategy and working with customers – and surround himself with people who could do the other work.

To encourage the team members to play to their strengths.

To find solutions, make sure the prototype worked and produce success stories.

To do a public launch and show how the approach they had developed could help other customers to achieve success.

We then looked at each of these steps in depth. What did he actually do to make each of them happen? This helped to clarify his successful leadership style.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to look for any recurring patterns and then describe what you believe may be successful leadership style.

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Describe how you can follow your
successful leadership style in the future

Looking ahead, how can you follow your successful leadership style more in the future? How can you follow it by, for example, finding or doing a specific project? What other skills may you need to add to help you to deliver success?

The person mentioned above took this route. He did this by taking the following steps. He clarified:

The specific kinds of prototypes he found stimulating to build.

The specific places where he could build such prototypes – such as for companies that wanted to be ahead of the game in their particular field.

The specific ways he could position this offering by showing how building such a prototype would benefit both the company and their customers.

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Follow up questions can help people to clarify what they have done to perform well in the past. They can then use this information to focus on how to perform well in the future.

Let’s move on to another aspect of using follow up questions.

Clarifying what a person may
actually do in a particular role

Imagine that you are interviewing somebody who has applied for a leadership role. The candidate has said all the right things, such as:

I will build an engaged and motivated in which people deliver success.

This sounds okay, but many people have learned how to pass interviews by using buzzwords. How can you tell whether they will translate these concepts into concrete actions?

One approach is to ask the person to describe what they will actually do to achieve their desired goals? Bearing this in mind, you may say something along the following lines to the candidate.

That sounds excellent, so is it okay to ask you what you will actually do to make these things happen?

Please accept that these questions are designed to explore how you will translate the ideas into action, rather than to try to catch you out. It is also okay to reflect and take your time when considering the questions. So here goes.

Let’s start with a few questions about clarifying the team’s picture of success. What will you actually do to meet with the key stakeholders – such as your manager – and agree with them on the specific goals the team must deliver?

Before such a meeting, what will you do to understand the whole organisation’s goals? What will you do to clarify your team’s contribution towards achieving these goals?

Let’s assume that you clarify the team’s aims. What will you do to rate the team’s chances – on a scale 0-10 – of delivering the goals? What will you do to clarify the specific things you can do to increase the chances of success? 

What will you then do to prepare for the meeting with your manager? What will you do beforehand to understand the Dos and Don’ts for managing your manager?

What will you do in the meeting to show your manager that you understand the organisation’s strategy? What will you do to reassure them that your team will deliver its part in achieving the organisation’s goals?  

What will you do to show your manager that you will proactively keep them informed about the team’s progress towards achieving the goals? What will you do to show you will deliver some quick successes?”

This sounds a lot but, as you say, the aim will be to ensure that your team delivers success. Later will explore what you will do to build an engaged and motivated team.

Before then, however, we would like to know what you would actually do – in behavioural terms – to make clear contracts with your manager about the team’s picture of success.

Asking such questions may sound tough. Some people may also be taken aback by being asked to describe what they will actually do – in behavioural teams – to work towards achieving their goals.

Given time to reflect, however, some candidates will be able to describe the specific actions they will take. Other individuals may attempt to bluster and give even more buzzwords. If so, you can then ask them the following questions.

You say that will build an engaged and motivated team. What will you actually do to make that happen?

What will you do to prepare for your first meeting with the team members? How will you greet them? What will be the first things you say? What will you do to see if they show signs of being positive and engaged? What will you do to encourage that behaviour? 

What will you do to explain the provisional vision for the team? What will you do to give people a sense of ownership in building the team’s plan? What will you do to explain the professional standards that people must demonstrate to achieve the goals? What will you do to explain the support you will give to people in the team?

What will you do to discover each team member’s strengths? What will you do to make clear contracts with individuals about their contributions to the team? What will you do to ensure people proactively keep you informed about their progress towards achieving the goals?  

What will you do to encourage the positive people in the team? What will you do to decide whether or not particular people are demonstrating the required professional standards? What will you do to act on those decisions? What will you then do to build a motivated team that delivers the picture of success?

Clarifying How You Can
Use Follow Up Questions

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a specific situation where it may be helpful to use follow up question? This could be in your personal or professional life.

You can use such questions to clarify a person’s strengths, successful style or their picture of success. You can also use them to clarify the specific things a person will do to translate their ideas into action.

There are, of course, many other ways to use such questions. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in which you think it would be useful to ask follow up questions.

Describe the specific follow up questions you can ask in this situation.

Describe the specific benefits of asking such follow up questions.

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