Asking the right questions

Have you ever asked your front-office staff why a specific patient cancelled, or why the schedule isn’t full on a particular day? This line of questioning may seem harmless, but it can actually be quite destructive to your staff’s morale, and it rarely solves problems. Here is how to ask an effective question—and solve dental practice management problems while doing so.

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Marie Chatterley

Years ago, I attended a staff meeting in a general dental practice. In that meeting, the doctor expressed serious concern about the number of cancellations and no-shows they had been experiencing. It was a chronic problem they could not seem to get under control, so I asked them to describe the dialogue the doctor was having with his front-office personnel. The staff explained how the doctor regularly came up front and asked them why “so-and-so” was not there, or why the schedule was not full that day, or why a specific patient had cancelled. The doctor thought his line of questioning was harmless. After all, he simply wanted to know what was going on. However, the way he was questioning the staff made them feel disempowered and defensive. It was as if he was accusing them of not doing their jobs correctly. As you might imagine, this was not solving the problem.

In this instance, what could the doctor have done differently to help the staff feel more trusted, empowered, and supported so that they were all working toward a common solution? I suggested the answer lied in asking the right questions.

Effective questions are open-ended and not leading. They are not so much “why” questions, but rather “what” or “how” questions. “Why” questions may be good for soliciting information, but many times they can make people feel defensive. “What” and “how” questions tend to focus more on the issue at hand and less on the person or the person’s role or attachment to the issue.

When working with a person to solve an issue, it is not enough to tell him or her what the problem is. The person needs to discover and understand it for themselves. You can help him or her do this by asking thought-provoking questions. Rather than making assumptions about what the person knows about the issue, these questions will help you identify what the person actually knows about the problem.

The difference between effective and less effective questions lies in the focus of the question. Less effective questions make people feel put on the spot, intimidated, and accused. They focus on the reasons that person is not achieving or cannot achieve the intended objective. The following are examples of less effective questions:

  • “Why isn’t this done yet?”


  • “Why are you behind?”


  • “What’s the problem?”


  • “Why is the schedule falling apart?”


  • “Why isn’t the schedule full?”


  • “Who did that?”


  • “Who wants to tell the (boss) about this?”


We have a choice of focusing our attention on the results we want to accomplish or on the reasons why they have not been accomplished yet. How we focus our attention determines, in large part, whether we and those around us become part of the solution or part of the problem.

In contrast, effective questions make people feel empowered, cared-about, and important to the solution. They focus on the issue and what can be done to support the people involved in solving it. The following are examples of effective questions:

  • “How do you feel about the project so far?”


  • “What is the most positive part of the progress you have made so far, in your opinion?”


  • “How would you describe the way you want this project to turn out?”


  • “What are your specific objectives?”


  • “Which objectives do you think will be the easiest to accomplish?”


  • “Which will be the most difficult?”


  • “What will be the benefits for our patients if you can meet all those objectives? For our practice? For our team? For you personally?”


  • “What kind of support do you need to ensure success?”


  • “How can I help you?”


Combining effective questions with forward focus creates an effective empowerment tool. Effective questions yield responses that support people moving toward the intended objectives. Adding the asking element provides people with the added benefit of discovering the answers for themselves. This generates buy-in commitment to the solutions they find.

Effective questioning is only half of the process, though. After an effective question has been asked, it is equally important to wait for and properly acknowledge the answer. Good listening, understanding the answers, and suspending judgment must follow the question. This means being focused on understanding what the respondent is really saying. Unfortunately, many people listen with the intent to reply versus listening with the intent to understand. Let go of your opinions so that they do not block you from learning from the answer.

Keep in mind above all else that unless your heart is in the right place (meaning you truly care for the other person), effective questioning can be perceived as manipulation and may backfire. Effective questions and effective listening work best when what you say and do come from a sense of care and compassion for the other person and not from a place of self-interest and concern for your own benefit.

Author’s note: For more information about this subject, refer to the book Enlightened Leadership: Getting to the Heart of Change, by Ed Oakley and Doug Krug.


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Marie Chatterley is a dental practice transition consultant with CTC Associates, a dental practice transition consulting company. She can be reached at (303) 795-8800 or ctc-associates.com.

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