Powerful Questions

Bill Abbate

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One trait you will find to be common in every great leader is the ability to ask powerful questions. Curiosity and questioning stand at the foundation of learning. Questions lead to knowledge, understanding, and increased awareness, without which no one can lead effectively.

When you turn questions to yourself, you can gain knowledge and awareness about your very being. You see more of who you are and better understand what makes you tick. Understanding yourself is another prerequisite to leading effectively.

Let's look at what it takes to create powerful questions.

The importance of questions

"In the presence of the question, the mind thinks again." Nancy Kline, Time to Think

Did you know that responding to questions urges your brain to grow new cells (neurogenesis), regardless of age? Your mind is wonderfully complex and doesn't take kindly to being told what to do, but questions are a different matter! In her book Time to Think, Nancy Kline stated:

"The mind resists commands and responds to questions." Nancy Kline, Time to Think

The benefit of asking questions to yourself and about your world often increases your understanding of who you are and how things around you work. This can only enhance your life. If you don't ask questions about yourself, you're leading an unexamined life.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates (470-399 BC)

While harsh, there is an element of truth to that statement. Think about this: The quality of a question determines the quality of your thoughts. Your thoughts, in turn, determine what you learn, affecting your growth as a person and leader. Or, put another way, the more powerful the question, the greater the potential to expand your understanding. So how do you ask more powerful questions? Following are some rules of thumb:

Types of questions

The least powerful questions are closed-ended and result in a simple answer like yes or no. They can also ask you to make a choice—such as, which is better, this or that?

Low-power questions generally create short, defined answers and often lead the person to react or provide a minimal response. They can be great for narrowing down and obtaining more succinct answers; however, they can miss valuable information in the deeper layers of truth.

Powerful questions lead to more profound insight and reflection. They can also bring answers that supply flavor and richness by getting us to think more deeply by looking inside ourselves.

It is only a little more challenging to ask a powerful question, but the effort can pay huge dividends. Being willing to phrase and consider powerful questions will help you learn and grow by enhancing your perspectives.

The most powerful questions ask why? I advise you to use "why" questions carefully. When asking someone a "why" question, you ask for their motive, which can seem judgmental.

I encourage you to ask yourself, "Why did you do that?" about something to help probe your underlying assumptions. Yet ask that of someone else, and you're putting that person on the spot in a way that can be most uncomfortable!

It is often best to rephrase "why" questions as "how" or "what" questions. In place of "Why did you do that?" ask, "What happened?" or "How did you come to that decision?" Because these new questions deal with specifics instead of motives, people are likely to feel less challenged and answer them more openly.

While a "why" question helps us look inward, when directed at others, pay attention to your intent by asking, "Why am I asking this question? What do I need to know? Can I ask this question to get information without seeming judgmental?"

Exercise 1

Try this effective exercise to understand yourself better: ask yourself the same question using "why" multiple times. For example, "Why did I do it?" Or perhaps, "Why haven't I done it yet?" After your first answer to the question, ask it again — "why?" Then ask "why" repeatedly until you have mined all that can be said. I try to ask myself "why" at least six times to dig deep. It will astound you how much deeper you can go doing this and how many layers you can unravel.

Reference chart

Following is a quick reference chart showing questions and their relative strength.

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By Author

While all types of questions are important, it is helpful to start with more probing questions to expand your understanding. You can then follow with lower power questions to fill in specifics. For example, let's take an inquiry about someone's life: "What do you want?"

You could add more to that question, but the shorter the question, the richer the answer. If you ask, "What do you want in life?" or "How do you want to start living?" you will get different answers.

You will likely receive a short answer if you ask a similar question using who, where, when, or which. This short answer will not aid expansion on the subject. It is also unlikely to fuel your curiosity as much as using a what or how question. However, if more specifics are needed, ask lower power questions.

Example

Answer the following questions for yourself to see how the answers differ. This time let's use the subject of your job.

  • Where do I want to work?
  • When do I want to work?
  • Who do I want to work with?
  • Which organization do I want to work for?
  • Do I prefer to work for myself or run my own business?

Each of these would likely produce a short response. Instead of asking such low power questions, ask the following:

  • What do I want from my work?
  • How can I get more from my job?
  • What does success look like at work?

Remember: The least powerful questions provide the least information, such as yes, no, the location, a name, etc.

Since asking questions is critical to growth, let's recap and go a little deeper into each type of question.

Low-power questions start with where, which, when, who, do, will, or can and will most likely provide limited information.

Powerful questions usually start with how or what and give deeper insight into the situation at hand. These questions require the answerer to think.

It's important to ask powerful questions of yourself because they lead to introspection and reflection and expand your mind.

Going deeper

Powerful questions are equally important in speaking to others. Instead of asking simple questions like, "Do you like this?" ask, "What do you like about this?" Instead of asking, "Where do you come from?" ask, "What made you decide to move here?" The latter questions will provide more insight into the person because they must dig deeper to answer them.

Returning to our example of asking someone about work, interviewers often ask, "Why do you want to work here?" The question can sound judgmental if you emphasize "here" rather than "why."

To adjust the tone, you can ask a broader question, such as "Why is work important to you?" How you phrase the question is essential, and where you place the inflection with your voice can change the meaning.

Exercise 2

As a little exercise, ask "Why would you want to work here?" to someone for their input. Put a stronger emphasis on different words in the sentence. Have them record how it makes them feel (being criticized, judged, neutral, or other?) Try it now, stressing the bolded word in each question below:

Why would you want to work here?

Why would you want to work here?

Why would you want to work here?

Why would you want to work here?

"Why" questions can be like using a sledgehammer to drive a tack because of their potential critical or judgmental nature. Depending on the situation, a why question can even shut down a person.

When we feel judged—especially when asked something we don't yet have an answer for —our emotional reaction can affect our reasoning ability. When asked the wrong "why" question, we can enter a fight, freeze, or flight mode.

For this reason, using "why" to start a question is often avoided in professions such as coaching. As a coach, we wish to expand, not contract, thinking.

You only need to remember that "why" questions are powerful, so use them in a way that is helpful, not harmful. And don't forget if you cannot ask a why question without judgment or sounding critical, it's best to avoid it unless that is your intent.

A secret

Want to know a little secret you can use to make your questions as powerful as possible? Develop a deep, genuine interest in whatever the topic is and in the person to whom you are asking a question. The more curious you are about something, the greater the potential to develop better and more powerful questions.

Like many things you do, learning to ask powerful questions is a skill. Genuine curiosity will help you grow in the skill and enjoy developing it. Without sincere interest, there is little incentive to endure the discomfort that sometimes accompanies asking questions that can change your or another person's life.

Final thoughts

Questions help you prepare for learning, growth, and decisions about your next steps. The more prepared you are, the more opportunities you see. As a wise philosopher said millennia ago:

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

The more you prepare, the more likely you'll get "lucky" when an opportunity comes along. While you may appear lucky to others, your achievements have certainly come from the hard work of preparing yourself well before the opportunity became available.

It all begins with asking the right questions to help you think new thoughts to produce new actions that provide new outcomes.

Work on asking yourself powerful questions. I assure you; the rewards will be great! As the president and founder of the Inquiry Institute once stated:

"Change your questions, change your life!" Merilee Adams, Ph.D. (1945-present)

To become a leader at the highest levels of business and society, I challenge you to be more conscious and deliberate with the questions you ask! It will change your life as well as those with whom you interact!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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