One of the key things I have learned from NLP is how to ask great questions that really uncover useful information.

There are certain ways of using language that can presuppose lengths of time, energy or other useful measurements. As a general guide though, here are some useful things to know:

Why’ questions
In NLP we typically avoid questions beginning with ‘why’ because it’s very tricky to predict the level of detail someone might respond with. ‘Why” is a very ambiguous question. We can think about any idea, concept or thing in levels of abstraction. This means that we can focus on fine details or big picture concepts. If I said “Why do you have a job?” you could respond with big concepts such as money to give you freedom and miss out all of the details about the best friend you have a chat with and the systems you enjoy using. Alternatively you could tell me all about the system you enjoy using but miss out a big important concept like freedom.

‘Why’ is also unhelpful when we use it in a negative situation – for example “Why can’t you/I X?”

When you ask someone why they can’t do something, their brain (very helpfully) goes through all of their memories and resources, pulling together all of the reasons why they can’t do it. That’s like a negative affirmation! It gives them a huge list of excuses and doesn’t really help to move anything forward.

A better question starts with ‘How’
‘How’ questions get people thinking outside of the box – the box being their head! Where a ‘why’ questions has people look inside of themselves at what they already know, ‘how’ makes them look outside at information they might not have accessed before.

Better still, ‘how’ is seemingly infinite in the answers it can generate.

Let’s say there is a pole, erected horizontally in the air, 40 ft from the ground. In your mind, right now, thing of 5 different creative ways to get over that pole. How can you do it?

Having told you to pick 5 ways, the likely hood is you made it to 5 or maybe a handful more than that. But consider what happens if I leave it open and just poke again with a repeat of the ‘how’ question.

How can you get over that pole? (Keep thinking of different ways until you run out.)

And how else could you do it?

And how else? (Did it make you squeeze out a few more ideas?)

My other two favourite questions that I love to ask people – and now ask in all sorts of contexts outside of my work are:

“Is there anything I haven’t asked you which you think might be useful or important to mention to me?”


“Is there anything else you need to ask me, that I have not yet told you?”

I use these questions in meetings at the bank, medical consultations for myself, or any form of contract I go into. If there is important small print that I’m unlikely to read, it usually prompts the other party to point out “Well, yes, this bit is worth noting…”

There is almost always something they say in response to one or both of these questions because people don’t like to feel as if they don’t have an answer. It also means that it takes the pressure and responsibility off of you to squeeze all of the information out of them, and instead puts them charge of presenting the information to you.

By Gemma Bailey