by Melanie Greene

Key questions to assist understanding

How do you usually go about understanding something? It might, for example, be a particular business concept or theory; how a piece of equipment works; why something has gone wrong or why you need to do something in a certain way.

We often learn to understand concepts, theories and ideas by

  • Reading
  • Searching the internet
  • Discussing ideas with others
  • Asking a mentor, coach or manager
  • And, sometimes, trial and error!

Asking questions is often the key to understanding something. The more questions you ask, even if they are supposedly simple or slightly off the wall, the more it will assist you in understanding something.

If you are going to learn something new and you need to understand it well, what questions might you ask?


Let’s take the example of a manager learning to do an appraisal for the first time. Some of the following questions would be likely to assist them in understanding the whole process:

  • What forms do I need to use?
  • What competencies do I need to use?
  • Does HR get involved?
  • What happens to the information afterwards?
  • How do we go about rewarding people?
  • How are pay increases and bonuses worked out?
  • How do we go about organising training for people?
  • What kinds of preparation do I need to do to make the process going smoothly?
  • What do I need to do to prepare the appraisee or help them to prepare?
  • When is the best time to carry one out?
  • Where is the best place to hold it?
  • What skills do I need to use?
  • What kinds of things can go wrong?
  • What do I do if we have a difference of opinion?
  • What should I do if the person cries, gets angry, walks out, refuses to talk, disagrees with me or won’t sign off the outcome?
  • What should I do if I start to get irritated and loose my temper?
  • What if a person can’t seem to change their behaviour and/or improve their performance?
  • Who would be a good person to observe carrying out an appraisal who could act as a model?
  • Could someone observe my first couple of appraisals and give me feedback?
  • Are there any other questions I’ve not thought of or other information I need to know?

As you can imagine, if you were a new manager and you got the answers to all these questions, you would be in a much better position to carry out an appraisal. And you can also look at the topic on Appraisals.

Key questions

People often find that asking some of the following questions can be useful in helping them gain an understanding of a subject. These questions can also be used in a variety of ways:

  • Before you observe someone who is training, coaching or mentoring you
  • During a de-brief coaching session
  • When you are coaching yourself
  • When you are engaged in peer coaching.


  • What is the function of X?
  • What can be achieved by using it?
  • What is the main purpose?
  • Are there other things that it can be used for?


  • How does this compare with X?
  • How is it different?
  • How is it similar?
  • What advantages or disadvantages does it have compared with Y?


  • How would an experienced person view this? How would they describe it?
  • How would this look to a team member, a supervisor, a manager, a customer or a member of the general public?
  • How would X approach this? How would this differ from how Y might approach it?


  • What could go wrong with this?
  • What do we do if this happens?
  • What early warning signs do I need to look or listen out for?
  • What are the common problems that occur?
  • What are the more unusual problems?
  • What are the more difficult ones to deal with?
  • How can I avoid these problems?


  • How will I know when I have got it right?
  • How will I know when I have fully understood it?
  • How will I know when things have gone wrong?
  • How will I be assessed?

Putting the key questions into practice

Think of a topic that you are learning about at the moment or something you would like to know more about – perhaps the 360 degree feedback process, Action Learning Sets or Emotional Intelligence. Then think of a range of key questions that cover the five areas outlined above that might help you to understand the topic.

Key questions

Ask yourself: