What questions work for you in building high quality connections?

December 10, 2019

By: Jane Dutton, Mary Ceccanese, Marcia Ryan


The seed for a high quality connection often begins with a question. Have you noticed this when you spot a long time coworker or step on the elevator at work with a complete stranger? Questions asked of others are an invitation to connect. They can open up or close down a connection’s potential and therefore the connection’s capacity to strengthen both people. Questions asked at the beginning of a connection are consequential. They are often a type of “first move” in an unfolding connection pattern that sets the trajectory for how well or how poorly a connection is likely to fare.

Prior research tells us that higher quality connections confer all kinds of benefits for both people thus knowing how to jumpstart a quality connection through question-asking is a valuable tool for all people at work. At the same time, because high quality connections contribute to more effective coordination and collaboration, build employee engagement and attachment, and increase trust in the organization, connecting questions turn out to be strategically significant for teams and organizations as well.

Question-asking has been singled out as a skill important for lots of challenges including solving problems, fostering creativity, engaging organizational change, checking in with colleagues, and being an effective leader. Of late, there’s been lots of interest in relationship-building questions, especially in the sphere of romantic connections. However, for our blog we are interested in the effective connection-building questions in the context of work.

Not all questions (just like all invitations) are equally potent in affecting connection quality. It is helpful to carry in our minds a framework for making sense of the kinds of questions that typically work in building connection. A simple framework is one that considers four different intentions in question asking that are likely to foster higher quality connections. The four high prospect intention buckets are questions that: 1) convey genuine interest in the other person; 2) call forth positive emotions in the other (e.g., gratitude, calm, awe, love) 3. provide help or assistance to another and/or 4) intend to uncover common ground (e.g., shared history, interests or other qualities). These types of questions work to build connection because they foster mutual respect, care and understanding, move toward building a sense of trust and safety, furthering mutual interest and motivating people to open up and engage more with each other.

Here are some examples of intentional questions that fit the four buckets, but we are sure you can think of more.

1. Ask Questions that Convey Genuine Interest in the other person

  • What has been the most meaningful part of your work week
  • What do you most care about in your work? Or what do you most love to do here?
  • What have you learned about yourself at work?

2. Ask Questions that Inject Positivity

  • What gives you joy at work?
  • Who are you most grateful for at work?
  • What makes you feel valued here?

3. Ask Questions that Offer Help and Assistance

  • In what ways can I assist you in your work?
  • What are your biggest needs at work right now?
  • What have others done at work for you that you have found most helpful?

4. Ask Questions that Uncover Common Ground

  • What is your favorite hobby or activity outside of work?
  • What are you most looking forward to in the next three months?
  • Where have you traveled that you most enjoyed?

And if you want more, here are some examples from other writers who consider the power of questions for building higher quality connections.

There are books as well that can provide useful seed corn for expanding our question-asking repertoire. For example, the Encyclopedia of Positive Questions, based on appreciative inquiry practices, helps us to think about how to invite connection through appreciative questions. Our colleague Wayne Baker has a new book called All You Have to Do is Ask that describes how to ask questions at work to solicit effective help from others. There are also books devoted to networking authentically that suggest questions to ask in service of connecting. Finally, there are books on positive communication that offer useful ideas for how to ask questions that are part of a broader interest in building positive communication skills.

There are an almost infinite number of questions that invite connection at work. The important underlying idea is that not all questions are equally effective. Intentions behind the questions matter. We have provided suggestions to grease the wheels for improving our quality connecting capacity with others. Our hope is that this blog reminds us that being thoughtful about the questions that begin connections can be an important step in becoming a high quality connection builder at work and beyond.


This blog was originally published on the High Quality Connections website