At the foundation of serious learning is curiosity. Curiosity leads to questions that create knowledge, understanding, increased awareness, and wisdom.
Some of the most important questions are about ourselves, helping us learn what makes us tick.
Read on to learn more about this crucial life skill and how you can develop it!
Why ask questions?
Did you notice the above subtitle? It’s a question that hopefully piqued your curiosity and desire to learn about this invaluable life skill.
“In the presence of the question, the mind thinks again.” Nancy Kline (1946-present) from Time to Think
In her book Time to Think, Nancy Kline stated, “The mind resists commands and responds to questions.” Your mind is wonderfully complex, and it doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do! Instead, your mind is inherently curious and responds to questions. Did you know these questions urge your brain to grow new cells (neurogenesis), regardless of age?
Ask questions about yourself and the world around you as often as possible, and you cannot help but enhance your life. Without curiosity and questions about yourself, you’re leading an unexamined life. As an ancient philosopher stated:
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates (c. 470–399 BC)
While Socrates’ words may sound harsh, they contain much truth.
Examining your life requires curiosity and questions, and the quality of your questions determines the quality of what you learn.
Or put another way, the more powerful your questions, the greater the potential to increase your understanding.
So how do you ask more powerful questions? By understanding the structure behind them and the difference between weak and powerful questions. Powerful questions always produce greater insight and learning.
The least powerful questions are closed-ended, resulting in simple answers like yes or no. They can also ask you to make a simple choice — which is better, this or that? Low-power, weak questions usually begin with who, when, where, or which.
Low-power questions generally provide limited information leading to short, defined answers. They can be great for narrowing down and bringing out more succinct responses; however, they can miss a tremendous amount of valuable information.
Powerful questions usually begin with what or how. These questions require reflection and lead to more profound insights. Powerful questions create answers that supply flavor and richness. They make you think more deeply as you search for answers.
It’s 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 gain new perspectives to help you learn and grow.
Instead of asking simple questions like, “Do you like this?” ask, “What do you like best about this?” Instead of asking, “Where do you come from?” ask, “What made you decide to move here?” The latter questions will provide far more insight into the person because you’ll get a deeper layer of information.
The most powerful questions
The most powerful questions begin with why. They can lead to deep discovery and understanding, but be careful! A why question can be like using a sledgehammer to drive a tack. Why is this? Because asking why questions can come across as critical or judgmental. Depending on the situation, a why question can even make a person shut down.
But when asked correctly, you can usually follow up with an open-ended question like “and what else?” to dig even deeper.
You can ask yourself why questions all day long, but asking them of others requires careful thought and good technique.
Ask yourself, “Why did you do that?” to probe your underlying assumptions. Yet ask that same question to someone else, and you can put them on the spot in a way that can be most uncomfortable! This is why these most powerful questions are often best rephrased as how or what questions.
For example, instead of asking, “Why did you do that?” you can ask, “What happened?” Or you can inquire, “How did you come to that decision?” These alternative questions will still find what you want to learn, and the person will be more comfortable answering them.
Anytime you must ask a why question to someone else, do a little preparation first. Uncover your intent by asking yourself:
- Why am I asking this question?
- What do I need to know?
- Can I ask this question without being or sounding critical or judgmental?”
If you are satisfied you are not being judgmental, you are in a better position to ask such a question. If you determine you will come across as judgmental, it is best to reframe it by starting the question with what or how.
To understand something in your life 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?”
Write down your first answer to the question, and ask it again. Write down your second answer and continue with the same question until you have mined all that can be said.
When I do this self-questioning exercise, I try to ask why to myself at least six times to dig deep. It will astound you how much further and deeper you can go using this technique.
The power of questions
The following graphic depicts the relative strength of each type of question.
Let’s look at the inquiry about someone’s life by asking: “What do you want?”
You could add more to that question, but keeping the question as short as possible will provide a richer answer.
If you add to the question by asking, “What do you want in life?” or “When 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. Such a question will not aid your exploration as much as a what or how question.
Answer the following questions for yourself to see how the answers differ.
- 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?
- Would I prefer to work for myself or run my own business?
Each low-power, closed-ended question above is answerable in a word or two. They require little thought and give little insight but are helpful if you want specifics.
To gain greater insight, ask similar but more powerful questions starting with what or how as in the following.
- What do I want from my work?
- How can I get more from my job?
- What would success look like at work?
Each of the above questions will help you obtain a fuller, more meaningful answer.
One more item of note about questions is to pay attention to any words you emphasize when asking a question. By stressing one word, you can completely change the question.
To see how this works, verbalize the following question emphasizing the word in bold:
- WHY do you want to work here?
- Why do you want to work HERE?
This works with any question. Another example is:
- WHAT makes you want to work here?
- What makes you WANT to work here?
- What makes you want to work HERE?
Asking better questions for personal growth
Want to know a little secret you can use to empower your questions? Develop a deep, genuine interest in the topic or person you are asking a question.
The more curious you are about something or someone, including yourself, the greater the potential to develop better and more powerful questions.
Learning to ask powerful questions is a skill, so the more curious you become, the more you will enjoy the process of honing it.
You can find opportunities each day to practice asking powerful questions to help yourself and others think more deeply. Be on the lookout for such openings, and you will find them.
Countless opportunities exist in life to ask more powerful questions and get more powerful results. Imagine how your powerful questions can empower you and others to learn more, do more, and become more!
Questions serve a crucial function in life, preparing us for learning, growth, and making decisions about our next steps. The more prepared we are to ask powerful questions, the more opportunities we will find.
As a philosopher said millennia ago:
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Seneca (4 BC-65 AD)
In other words, the more you prepare, the more likely you’ll get “lucky.” At least it will appear that way to others!
It all starts with asking the right questions to help you and others think new thoughts, expanding your worlds.
As the founder of the Inquiry Institute wrote:
“Change your questions, change your life!” Merilee Adams (1945-present)
I assure you that by working on this skill of asking powerful questions, you will find great rewards in your personal life and career!
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