The Art of Powerful Questions

I find the latest Google Ad to be both a blessing and a curse! A blessing because just as shown in the Ad, my children can and do ask Google everything.

“OK, Google tell me more about the weather.”

A curse because I feel that they are missing out on the joy of learning the old fashioned way!

I wish instead that they would ask powerful questions and discover the answers for themselves (fine, they can use Google once they have asked the powerful questions!).

“What is weather? What exactly do I know about weather? What else do I need to learn? Why is this important to me? What have I observed about the weather (in Virginia)? How can I interpret this information in a fun way for my weather project?”

Powerful Questions

The current state of questioning

Look around you, everything that makes your daily life easy from reliable electricity to canned foods to long distance travel was made possible by human ingenuity, ingenuity that originated from curiosity and critical thinking.

However it feels like, 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 around passing 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.

As individuals we are trapped in the matrixed reality projected by our interactions. We are seldom offered opportunities to ask transformative questions that bring forth 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 kind of insights were you able to share in the ensuing discussion?

Most of us think that we are adept at the art of questioning. But, let us explore this for a minute.

How good are we at asking powerful questions?

Allow me to give you a personal example. As a consultant, 80% of my job is to really understand my client’s needs. The remaining 20% is execution. I have always considered my elicitation skills to be exceptional.

However, in a recent encounter with a client, I tried something new. I used coaching techniques from my ACC training to delve deeper. There was no material difference in the research I had done prior to the meeting. There was nothing new I presented the client, in fact I let the discussion reflect my recommendation.

The only difference was in my focus throughout the meeting. I was present, I listened actively and asked powerful questions. Here are just a few of the questions I asked.

Judge for yourself. What difference would it make if you asked them in your situation?

  • 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?

The results were astounding! The conversation was more open, the flow of ideas was smooth and above all the client’s sense of trust and faith was palpable. There was a complete shift in the vibrational energy.

Color me surprised! I was blown away by the transformation of this seemingly routine client meeting.

My personal experience has convinced me! I will use powerful questions whenever and wherever I can. 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
  • Use personal questions (lots of “you”s) rather than impersonal questions (what about this)
  • Beat around the bush, instead of establishing the desired outcome at the outset

My experience had me wondering…

Why don’t we ask better questions?

There are a myriad reasons why we don’t take the time to inject powerful questions into our conversations. We don’t ask powerful questions because…

  • 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 conversation
  • Sometimes deeper questioning is interpreted as 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 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.

As Einstein said,

The problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.

— Albert Einstein

Edward De Bono, who is 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 can act as a provocative outside influence, by creating a vibrant space for the 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?

Since we have established the cardinal sins of questioning, I bet that by now you can easily distinguish a powerful question. See if you are able to spot the powerful questions in the following list. I asked my oldest son these questions after he procrastinated on a recent project:

  • 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 (well, not as much as before)!

From everything that I have experienced, read and learned, it seems to me that all 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
  • they kindle deeper questions

More than anything, I have found that powerful questions linger in the participant’s subconscious mind. They propagate into other areas in their life and often even beyond the person, into the organizations and communities they influence. Powerful questions can become agents of profound systemic change.

How can you use powerful questions in your situation?

Another Albert Einstein quote I love goes,

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

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.

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 face a challenge say in convincing your partner of your 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 a science, they are an art.
  • There is always a place for powerful questions in mentoring or managing. How can you help your mentee or subordinate 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 I am sceptical of declarative affirmations such as “I build a life of greater success everyday”. It is almost tantamount to brainwashing and doesn’t resonate with me. Whereas an interrogatory affirmation such as “When did I feel successful in the past? What was I doing then? How can I bring the same level of thinking and working to my current situation?” can bring about a “Eureka” moment!.

So the next time you find your child asking Google yet another question or you find the rapid pace of life hindering true learning and insight, take the time to form some powerful questions of your own. I guarantee that they will transform your life!

What resonated the most for you in this post? How have you used powerful questions in your life? What insights would you like to add?

Your Creative Coach,
Kay

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