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"It's not just what you ask, but how you ask it."

ask great questions Sep 25, 2021

Ever heard that one before? 

Thankfully it happens much less these days.  But it took an experienced director to pull me aside after a board meeting one time to help see the light. 

Body language, tone of voice, choosing your words with care, and simply waiting for the right time to jump into the discussion have all made a huge difference in my ability to have influence over others in the boardroom.  But not every time.  I still manage to mess up when I’m not conscious of listening first or not putting myself into the other person’s shoes.

W.A.I.T. “Why am I talking?” is a helpful acronym to tuck away into your savvy director toolbox.  Try using it sometime before blurting out your question or interrupting someone who is talking.

Ask yourself, “Do I really need to speak to this agenda item? Or is it just my ego wanting to hear myself talk?”  Again, I’m speaking my personal truth as a director.  The fact is, taking a momentary pause to consider whether I should speak at all has proven helpful in a variety of situations – just ask my spouse! 

I’m starting to notice a pattern with these Savvy Director™ blog posts.  So much that I have written seems to reflect variations on the golden rule.  For instance, in a previous blog I wrote that people remember how you make them feel.  Isn’t that aligned with Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?  I sure think so.  My view is that, when you can make your point in the form of a question instead of a blunt opinionated statement, the outcome will be less push back, defensiveness, and downright anger from management and your fellow board directors.

You can assume your board chair is looking to create a culture of inquiry around the board table – a culture that enables key questions to be asked in a safe environment.  But safety is a two-way street.  While it’s your responsibility to ask the hard questions that need to be asked, you don’t want the person on the other end to feel attacked.  Nothing good can come of that.


Giving the Board Chair a heads up

In my view, it is a good collaborative practice to provide a heads up to the board chair and/or CEO if you are thinking of asking a really difficult question at an upcoming meeting, whether it is a question generated by the pre-read material or by external influences.  Give them a chance to prepare a response for the benefit of everyone on the board, helping to ensure a robust discussion on a challenging subject.  Everyone benefits. Or you might even receive clarification ahead of time that modifies the potentially strident nature of your question. 

Good, challenging questions in a board meeting do not have to make people mad.  But if people are more focused on wondering why you are such a jerk instead of seeing the real benefit of the question, the opportunity may get lost in the emotion.

This week’s edition of the The Savvy Director™ blog has a special free download.  Click here for The Art of Asking Questions.  Inside are some tips for asking questions effectively.  You’ll also get a brief introduction to some of the aspiring directors in our community who are growing their board skills every day … just like you and me.


Your takeaways:

  • Generating hostility with a good question asked poorly can be avoided. Remember to think about using a neutral tone of voice, choosing your words with care, watching your body language and waiting for the right time to ask the question.
  • Emotionally charged words can stop a good discussion in its tracks.
  • Watch and learn from the experienced directors around the board table for how they get their point across using effective questions. (Caution: You may also notice some bad behavior from directors who should know better.  Chances are they did not W.A.I. T.)
  • Consider providing your board chair and/or CEO with advance notice of a challenging question you plan to ask at an upcoming meeting. Give them a chance to perform well.
  • Read the Art of Asking Questions and feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.

Thank you.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.


Share Your Insight:  How do you minimize potential defensiveness and push back on challenging questions?



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