Powerful questions do more than simply elicit information. They are not only the foundation of meaningful exchange, they enrich our thinking and even our relationships. My recent post 10 Creative Questions to Help You Break Conflict Deadlock prompted a request for more detail on questions. Specifically, the questioner asked “How can I tell if a question could be called ‘creative’?”
This post will show you how you can start using Powerful Questions for your self-improvement, and for better outcomes in your work and your relationships. You will even be able to handle yourself better in interviews.
We travel through life guided by our questions, so it is a good idea to ask the ones that show us the direction we should be taking. This is particularly so in our important conversations with ourselves and others. Questions are an essential part of how we think and communicate. Without them, we would be neither able to think straight nor communicate effectively.
We use questions constantly, in our conversations with others and our conversations with ourselves. But we rarely think about how we structure them and, mostly, they go unnoticed. They are such a central part of how we think, act, and communicate that it would be hard to imagine how we could manage without questions. Occasionally, someone will say “That’s a good question”, and, just as rarely, we might notice a powerful question because it prompts insight or gets us to think about something in a new way.
We don’t think about how we create the questions we ask. We tend to notice the effects of questions, rather than how they are constructed. We get little schooling in their use, so we give little thought to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of using questions. In social situations, and even at work, most of us rely on a limited range of questions.
These are generally sufficient for our needs: “How are you?”; “What is that?”, “What time shall we meet?”… These are fit for purpose in a routine way, but not suitable for those times when we need to dig a little deeper, show genuine interest in another person, or carry a conversation towards a satisfactory conclusion.
And what about the questions we ask ourselves? Upbringing and education teach us to ask questions, but nobody explained how to ask helpful ones. Taken to an extreme, the habit of asking unhelpful questions (like “Why me?” or “How can I stop failing?”), result in unhappiness or worse.
Psychotherapist Marilee Goldberg (author of The Art of the Question), says “Most clients don’t realize that many of the questions they already ask, both consciously and unconsciously, lie at the source of their discontent.” The right question can open the mind and spark discovery, healing, change, and growth. If you take time to consider how you speak, think and listen, you’ll quickly realise that questioning is an essential tool for understanding yourself and others.
Despite this central importance most of us are never trained in the use of questions. They are an aspect of our language that we all use daily, but we rarely stop to think about them. This means that we often don’t get the results we would like and that conversations can become repetitive and stale.
In most cases, this may not matter. The ‘questions’ we use regularly are not expected to get great results and so are not taken literally. When we ask someone “How are you?” for example, we are not expecting a detailed account of their state of health. Other questions are rhetorical. “How could I be so stupid?”, for example, is asked in self-reproach; an answer isn’t expected.
Mastering some powerful questions will mean that you’ll be able to handle yourself better in interviews. Whichever side of the table you are on, asking effective questions will be the key to success.
What can go wrong?
Typically, we ask hundreds of questions each day. Without realising it we have a constant stream of them running through our minds, as well as the questions we ask of others. Aristotle said “All human beings, by nature, desire to know”. But when we fail to engage our curiosity and ask questions with a genuine “desire to know” we can fall into the following traps.
- Our quick-fix world expects answers. This misleads us into thinking that having the ‘right’ answers makes us appear smart and, at work, good at our jobs. Unfortunately, in our haste to appear positive and in control, we have forgotten that the point of a good question is to uncover relevant information. Asking questions to display your expertise or knowledge has the opposite effect
- Many of the questions we use are not engaging. They are formulaic and predictable and can lead into one of those circular arguments which seem to go nowhere. Powerful questions, on the other hand, can break the cycle and take the conversation in a new and more productive direction.
- We like to conform so, though a question might form in our mind, we fail to ask it for fear of being judged or looking stupid or ill-informed.
- Being able to pose incisive and insightful questions might seem that we are trying to be ‘clever’ or put somebody else on the spot.
- We worry that a particular question might offend or make it appear that we don’t trust the person we are asking.
A conscious choice
Sometimes we need questions to elicit something deeper than basic information. When we want to change the direction of a conversation, inspire creative thinking, settle a disagreement, or encourage learning or new behaviour, for example. That is where making a conscious choice to ask Powerful Questions is more likely to get the results you want.
The questions we use must be more carefully crafted if they are to have maximum effect. They must encourage learning, rather than simply looking for answers, and open up conversations, rather than closing them down. They are dynamic, driven by curiosity, and they require imagination.
Powerful questions can trigger insight, inspiration, motivation, and even change. They can act as a ‘call to action’. They go deeper too. When a question works well it can bring hope, subdue a conflict, ease pain. Some Powerful Questions can go on working long after they have been asked.
As one expert said, “A good question goes on working for many years”. Some professions understand the power of questions, the rest of us muddle along without realising how a few changes in how we think and speak could radically alter the results of our conversations.
- Engage the mind, they cannot be answered ‘automatically’.
- Prompt thought and occasionally, insight
- Require a little mental effort before responding
- May go on working after they are asked
- Tend to be forward-looking
- Show genuine interest, they prompt learning
- Are precise about what is being asked
- Encourage attentive listening
- Strengthen a relationship
- Are ‘open questions’ requiring more than a one-word answer
Weak questions, on the other hand:
- Can be answered without thinking
- Uncover no new information
- Discourage a narrative response (yes/no for example)
- Lead to circular reasoning (you begin with the belief that you already have the answer)
- Can anticipate an answer (“Don’t you respect me?”)
- May not be ‘questions’ at all (rhetorical)
- May combine several questions (“Why are you late, don’t you care?”)
Here are some examples that contrast the two types of questions
Weak Question: “Why do I keep making mistakes?”
Powerful question: “How can I get a better result next time?”
Weak Question: “Why are you late?”
Powerful question: “What needs to change so that you can be on time?“
Weak question: “How can I be happy?”
Powerful Question: “What does happiness mean to me?”
Weak Question: “Will you do better next time?”
Powerful Question: “What will help you do better next time?”
Weak Question: “Are you going shopping today?”
Powerful Question: “What are you planning to buy today?”
Powerful questions engage speaker and listener requiring that they ‘work together’ to uncover what lies ahead in the conversation. Weak questions don’t do that. They tend to be routine, not thought out, and generally rather lazy, or they are said for effect, to show ‘cleverness’, and need no answer.
How to create powerful questions
Effective questions begin in the imagination. They are fuelled by curiosity and genuine interest. The more you practice the more proficient you will become:
- Be curious and design questions which and look for possibilities
- Keep an open mind, develop the art of ‘not knowing’
- Use questions to show interest; the aim is to learn something
- Be comfortable with uncertainty; that is the root of exploration
- Develop your listening skills and spend more time listening than speaking
- Be prepared to ‘take a back seat’. Be a catalyst, not a show-off
- Always be prepared to learn, that’s why you are asking the question, isn’t it?
Powerful questions catch the listener’s attention and spark their interest in answering. They ask for more than a simple yes/no and require thought before responding. They direct attention, perception, energy, and effort.They have been called ‘keys’ in that they can unlock something within us and clear the way to enquiry, insight, and understanding.
A potent side-effect of powerful questions is their ability to access new thinking. They quite literally reach a part of the mind that more mundane questions don’t. This is part of what makes talk-therapy effective, and also why debate is such an important part of education.
Another positive is the way that the habits of showing interest and paying attention, benefit relationships. It has been said that “the first rule of communication is to listen well”, and great communicators are also great listeners. Paradoxically, people pay more attention to those who ask thoughtful questions and listen attentively.
Powerful questions to help you move on
As an illustration, here are some examples of powerful questions which could be useful in a conversation about conflict or disagreement.
- “What would you like to happen as a result of our conversation?”
- “How will you know this conversation has been useful for you?”
- “What do we need to do differently to help this relationship work better?”
- “If I could give you what you are asking for, how would that help you?”
- “How do you think we might resolve this together?”
- “Can we take a moment to think about other tensions/arguments/difficult situations we have been able to resolve together? How did we manage that?”
- “If we were helping two other people settle a difference, what would we advise them to do?”
- “If we already had the solution to this, what would we be doing?”
- “If we don’t manage to find a way through this, what will the effect on our relationship be?”
- “I know we can’t agree at the moment, but what if, by some magical twist of fate, we could. What do you think we’d be saying to each other right now?”
Questions have been called ‘keys’; they can open the door to new thinking. These questions can help you find a way past an impasse, not because they provide an immediate answer or an ‘aha!’ moment, but because they offer the chance to refresh a stale interaction by taking the conversation on a new direction. They offer an opportunity to think a little differently. From there on, it’s up to you.
Five simple rules
These five simple ideas will help guide you in learning how to construct Powerful Questions:
- Develop your curiosity, ask questions in a spirit of learning rather than being driven by the need for ‘answers’.
- Avoid questions that begin with “Why?” It is preferable to formulate questions that begin with What, Where, When, How, or Who as they engage the mind differently.
- Ask forward-looking questions rather than past-oriented ones. Looking to the future reveals possibilities more efficiently.
- Show genuine interest and positive intent; your questions should not seem like an interrogation.
- Be prepared to ‘not know’. Not everything has an answer nor an explanation. Keep an open mind and use questions to explore.
When you want to understand yourself, or another person, Powerful Questions will lead to interest and insight. Using a little thought when constructing questions means they can be more effective and conversations (with yourself or others) will be more concise and productive. With practice, you can hone your questioning skills to show interest, encourage collaboration, build rapport and bond with others.
What possibilities could a few powerful questions open up for you?