Everything that makes our daily life easy from reliable electricity to canned foods to long-distance travel was made possible by human ingenuity that originated from curiosity and critical thinking.
However, with the ubiquity of technology, we may be losing those very talents that helped us build this advanced society. Schools continue to teach through rote memorization, molding their curriculum to pass standardized exams. Companies reward employees for quick thinking and quick fixes. The need to ask the right question to find the right answer is emphasized over creative exploration. We are seldom offered opportunities to ask transformative questions that elicit long-lasting insights.
Reflect back to a recent meeting. How did you participate? What kinds of questions did you ask? How did you make sure that you understood the topic? What new knowledge did you gain? What insights did you share in the ensuing discussion?
Most of us think that we are adept at the art of questioning. But, how good are we really at asking powerful questions?
As a management consultant, 80% of my role is to understand my client’s needs. I have always considered my elicitation skills to be exceptional. But ever since my coach training, I have started using coaching techniques to delve deeper. My legwork and preparation for the meetings don’t vary. The biggest difference is in my focus throughout the meeting. I am present, I listen actively and ask powerful questions. Here is a sample of questions I might ask.
- What assumptions do we need to test here in thinking about this specific situation?
- What’s important to you about this project?
- What needs our immediate attention going forward?
- What question, if answered, could make the most difference to the future of this project?
Often, the results are astounding! The conversation is more open; ideas flow more smoothly. The client’s sense of trust is palpable. There is a complete shift in the vibrational energy, transforming a seemingly routine client meeting into a truly engaging experience.
Powerful questions have transformed the way I consult, I will use them whenever and wherever I can, and not just in coaching. I will strive to avoid these cardinal sins of questioning in my conversations:
- Focus on the how, why, where and when and forget to delve into the “what”
- Confirm my own views instead of understanding the other person’s point of view
- Ask close-ended questions
- Attribute my own context to words instead of learning the other person’s context
- Use metaphors that only resonate with me
- Enquire into the client’s emotions rather than the thinking
- Delve into details instead of focusing on the client’s vision and the desired outcome
My experience had me wondering…
Why don’t we ask better questions?
There are numerous reasons why we don’t take the time to introduce powerful questions in our conversations.
- Our culture values quick fixes
- The black or white thinking in problem-solving inhibits creative questioning
- The rapid pace of life precludes opportunities to participate in reflective conversations
- Sometimes deeper questioning is interpreted as a lack of decisiveness
- Highly cognitive functions (“knowledge work”) by their very nature suppress self-awareness
- We are attached to the “right answer” than in developing a greater understanding
- The capability to fix problems is recognized and rewarded while the potential to uncover new possibilities via breakthrough thinking is undervalued
No wonder the art of powerful questions has been forgotten! Unfortunately, given the challenges we face in our organizations, we need that capacity for creative thinking more than ever before.
We need more open dialogues, because they foster shared exploration towards greater understanding, deeper connections, and undiscovered possibilities.
The problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.— Albert Einstein
Edward De Bono, best known for his work on lateral thinking, further adds,
Vertical thinking is selection by exclusion. One works within a frame of reference and throws out what is not relevant. With lateral thinking one realizes that a pattern cannot be restructured from within itself but only as the result of some outside influence. So one welcomes outside influences for their provocative action. The more irrelevant such influences are the more chance there is of altering the established pattern. To look only for things that are relevant means perpetuating the current pattern.— Edward De Bono, Lateral Thinking, Creativity Step By Step
It is clear that powerful questions act as a provocative outside influence, creating a vibrant space for a paradigm shift to emerge.
We can all agree that it is hard and sometimes downright impossible to generate powerful questions from our “within-the-box” thinking. So, how do we go about creating powerful questions?
What makes a question powerful?
I recently talked to my son after he procrastinated on a project. See if you are able to spot the powerful questions in the following list of questions I asked him:
- Are you going to plan your time better in the future?
- Am I going to have to supervise or help you?
- What have you learned from this situation?
- What kind of support do you need to be successful in the future?
If you guessed that questions 3 & 4 are more powerful, you are right!
When I asked my son these questions, we had an extremely productive discussion. And what do you think happened? He internalized his insights and changed his approach. I haven’t had to micromanage or worry about his work since then.
Powerful questions have these attributes in common:
- they are open-ended
- they are thought-provoking
- they are based on positive assumptions
- they are impersonal
- they generate curiosity in the listener
- they stimulate self-reflection
- they open up new possibilities
- they generate forward movement
- they resonate deeply with the participant
What happens in the brain?
Powerful questions generate deeper insights because they are brain-friendly.
“What”, “How” and “Who” questions suppress limbic arousal, shifting the thinking into the Pre-frontal Cortex, the executive reasoning center of the brain. These q
One of my favorite coaching questions is, “Who are you becoming through this journey?” A question like that lingers in the client’s subconscious mind, propagating into other areas of their life and often even beyond the person, into the organizations and communities they influence.
Powerful questions can become agents of profound systemic change.
We live in a world our questions create.— David Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry
When can you use powerful questions?
I believe that you can ask powerful questions in just about any situation. However, they are most appropriate when you perceive the opportunity for a transformative shift in the participant and in the conversation.
If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.— Albert Einstein
Powerful questions are not a gimmick, they really are a revolutionary tool. But for them to work well, you need to ask them with the right intention. With positive assumptions and with a beneficent purpose in mind, they will work wonders in these situations:
- When you want to influence someone, say, your partner to follow a plan, use powerful questions to understand the underlying concerns.
- Just like I did, use powerful questions in parenting. Children gain a greater level of self-confidence when they can overcome their own challenges and implement their own strategies.
- Use powerful questions at work. A word to the wise, there is a fine line between using them as an effective tool and interjecting with powerful questions inappropriately just to extend the process of problem-solving. That is precisely why powerful questions are beyond science, they are art.
- There is always a place for powerful questions in mentoring or managing. How can you help your mentee or direct report set and achieve goals? What bottlenecks could you alleviate that will help them be more productive and feel more satisfied with their work?
- How about powerful questions in conversations with friends? How often do we resort to providing solutions when a friend calls to vent her frustrations? Why not use powerful questions to help her gain new insights into her feelings?
- One of the best ways to use powerful questions is to develop greater self-awareness. I often ask myself questions to understand my own ways of thinking and being. Sometimes these questions are uncomfortable to answer, but the discomfort is usually a sign of growth.
- Last but not least, I use them in interrogatory affirmations. Over the years I have realized that while I value affirmations, I am skeptical of declarative ones such as “I build a life of greater fulfillment every day”. It is tantamount to brainwashing and doesn’t resonate with me. Whereas an interrogatory affirmation such as “When did I feel fulfilled in the past? What was I doing then? How can I bring the same level of thinking and working to my current situation?” can generate a “Eureka” moment.
My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.— Peter Drucker
So the next time you find yourself committing any cardinal sins of questioning or find the rapid pace of life hindering true learning and insight, take a step back and ask some powerful questions. I guarantee that they will transform your life.
How have you used powerful questions in your life? What insights would you like to add?