Your Leadership Style: Asking systemic Questions

Let’s admit it: posing questions is not how we usually help others find solutions. Often as leaders we adopt the role of ‘being the expert’ and provide direction on the ‘how to’ – how to solve a problem; how to overcome unexpected challenges etc. This is undoubtedly a valuable skill and indisputably one which leaders are highly regarded for. However, is this giving of advice and providing direct answers the most effective course of action? Are we truly supporting innovative thinking and decision-making processes for our counterparts?

Scientists and innovative thinkers lead with questions to generate breakthrough ideas. Sales people lead with questions to qualify potential clients. Asking questions is indeed a powerful way of discovering facts and data in order for us to take informed decisions. However, often we are afraid of appearing foolish amongst our peers or perhaps simply uneasy on the type of questions to ask. And when exactly should we pose our questions?

In this article, I introduce a simple and yet powerful framework that highlights four types of questions, their intent and the likely outcome. This framework is based on the work of Karl Tomm, Professor of Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary and director of its Family Therapy Program. In the field of coaching this is called “systemic questioning”.

Four Types of Questions and their Function

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LINEAL QUESTIONS: these represent the ABC of asking questions and their function is to find out the facts. Simply put, they are the “Who, Where, What, When” of asking questions. They are factual based and aimed at discovering more about any situation or dilemma presented. Asking lineal questions is a viable and straightforward practice for gathering information that will assist us in reaching a fairly neutral picture of the reality being discussed.

Lineal questions can be asked at the beginning of a conversation to build rapport, when we need to become aware of specific details or when we want to pull apart a complex scenario during a brainstorming session. Here are some basic examples of lineal questions:

Who contacted the client first?

What did you propose to the client?

Where did the meeting take place?

When is your deadline?


Circular questions are those we draw upon when we want to find out what relationships exist between people or entities. Their function is to discover the connections and dynamics between two or more parties, including their differences, possible agreements/ disagreements etc. When it comes to circular questions, the same question may be concurrently asked to multiple people to find out what discrepancies or commonalities lay between different people. We typically ask circular questions during debates that involve people who work interdependently, such as team members, and variables that are mutually dependent. Here are some examples of circular questions:

Who intervenes more in the board meeting, the chairman or the CEO?

How is it that we have the same results when we chose two different strategies? Who else has the same results?

Has it always been done this way? Who else agrees that it has always been done this way?

How would that differ from how it is now? Would it more or less than it is now?

How does the compliance team differs from the legal team? If the two teams were in the same office, would they work more effectively?


With strategic questions we enter the realm of directive questions that are aimed at influencing our counterparts. The intent is to lead and prompt the other part to make adjustments. Strategic questions often embed a suggestion and because of their instructive and somehow corrective nature they can be provocative. Their function is to encourage counterparts to consider new possibilities as well as to take ownership of the new options they have discovered. We typically ask strategic questions when our counterpart is at a crossroads, or when doubts of which course of actions to take. For instance, when the counterpart is entirely oblivious of the impact of their decisions and actions. Here are some examples of strategic questions:

What can you do now to acknowledge that your objectives have to be aligned with the organization’s objectives? (A directive and instructive question. The intent here is to prompt the counterpart to take action).

Have you always disregarded the recommendations of the marketing team?

Is the habit of keeping your team in the dark during the decisional process and old habit or a new one?

Why don’t you brief your team on what is being discussed at the management meeting? (A directive question containing a suggestion)

How come you are not willing to share with your team some of the point discussed at the management meeting? (A provocative question)

Strategic questions have to be used with consideration, especially when they are corrective and posed in a provocative way. Although they can be very effective when we notice our counterpart is in need of encouragement or even persuasion, we have to ensure we have created a safe enough and non-judgmental conversational space for them to accept our suggestions or quasi-lecture instructions. Otherwise, we risk to run into resistance.


Reflexive questions have a facilitative intent, which means they help explore deeper levels of fact, data beliefs, ideas and situations. These questions elicit answers in which the counterpart will be expected to re-evaluate their point of view. There are several reflexive questions which Karl Tomm presents in his research (Interventive Interviewing: Part III. Reflexive Questioning as a Means to Enable Self-Healing) and they would deserve a separate article. For the sake of clarity, here is the original classification and a brief explanation of their functions:

Future-oriented question

The intent of these questions is to project the counterpart into a future scenario and stimulate their imagination. The aim is to prompt our counterpart to visualize without setting those boundaries that are normally imposed by our limiting beliefs or pre-conceptions.

How will things be different between you and your boss once you will start inviting her to your clients’ meetings?

Observer-perspective question

These are questions which invite the counterpart to put themselves in the shoes of someone else to think and behave as if they were the other person.

How do you think the head of Sales team would react once she is informed of the adjustment in the commission structure?

Unexpected context-change questions

The intent of such questions is to propose a chance of scenario that your counterpart is not able to envision or hasn’t thought about.

What would it be like if you could offer your sales team a two-week negotiation training once a year?

Embedded-suggestion questions

These questions are real suggestions that help the counterpart consider another option, precisely the one we are suggesting.

Instead of thinking that your boss is uncooperative, what if you thought he is overstretched? How might you approach him instead?

Normative-comparison questions

They have the purpose of prompting the counterpart to make an accurate comparison, especially in those contexts in which they have not carefully compared two or more samples.

Do you think consumers in the Middle East are more inclined to buy online compared to consumers in Europe?

Distinction-clarifying questions

Do you think his decision to leave the firm is about x, y or may be z?

Questions introducing hypothesis

The intention of these questions is to project the counterpart into a hypothetical scenario that may or may not happen. It helps thinking ahead about the possible solutions to adopt in case the assumed situation becomes a reality. Asking such questions is an excellent exercise when, for instance, a team is asked to put in place a contingency plan.

What do you think your team can do to prepare in case of a third lock-down?

Process-interruption questions

When you see that you directions lead you to the wrong place, what do you do next?

Today I have introduced to you four key question types to practically help sharpen the reflexive ability of your teams, to help with idea generation and to help anticipate needs and analyze complex scenarios. I wonder if your perception about questioning has changed? And if it has, in which way. I have endeavored to transition thought from a position in which the asking of questions is viewed as a sign of weakness and vulnerability to one in which is an indication of skillful leadership, to guide and to get the best from your teams.

Do you want to know more about systemic questioning and desire to experience it yourself to enhance your leadership awareness and decision making process? I invite you to contact us at bCoached by using the link below.

Or you can contact me directly silvia@bcoached.org


Silver, E. (1991). Should I give advice? A systemic view. Journal of Family Therapy13(3), 295-309.

Tomm, K. (1988). Interventive interviewing: Part III. Intending to ask lineal, circular, strategic, or reflexive questions? Family process27(1), 1-15.