Asking Powerful Questions

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. ~Thomas Berger

Nobel-prize winner, physicist Arno Penzias, when asked what accounted for his success, replied, “I went for the jugular question.” He later added, “Change starts with the individual. So the first thing I do each morning is asking myself, ‘Why do I strongly believe what I believe?’

Isaac Newton asked why things fell down and discovered gravity. Einstein, Ray Kroc, and Bill Gates asked questions that expanded knowledge, economy and technology.

Asking questions is important. Asking powerful questions are much more than that. They change our lives.

Innovations are answers to questions. All change starts with someone questioning the status quo. Everything we know today about our world emerged because people were curious. They formulated a question or series of questions about something that sparked their interest or deeply concerned them, which lead them to learn something new.

Asking powerful questions are essential in today’s post modern world. A world in which there are many wrong answers for many wrong questions.

A powerful question travels well. It brings about large scale change. It generates curiosity. It stimulates reflective conversation and is thought-provoking. A powerful question invites creativity and opens up new possibilities. It generates energy and channels attention.

Powerful question question touches a deep meaning and stays with us for a long time. Most importantly, a powerful question evokes more questioning.

There are three dimensions to a powerful question. Construction, scope and assumption.

How we construct a question can determine the opening or narrowing of the mind. A simple yes/no question is known as closed-ended question. Questions that starts with what, how, when and why are known as open ended questions.

Consider the following, consider the following sequence:

• Are you satisfied with our working relationship?

When have you been most satisfied with our working relationship?

What is it about our working relationship that you find most satisfying?

Why might it be that that our working relationship has had its ups and downs?

As you move from the simple “yes/no” question at the beginning toward the “why” question at the end, you’ll notice that the queries tend to stimulate more reflective thinking and a deeper level of conversation.

The scope of the question should be within the within the realistic boundaries and needs of the situation you are working with. If you are managing a supply-chain group, your question might be:

How can motivate my staff?

How to get the best from my staff?

What can I do to improve the work culture of my company?

Compared the above to this:

How can I improve the economy?

The question above is outside your scope of influence.

The third and final dimension of a powerful question is the assumption. Almost all question we pose have assumptions in-built in them either implicit or explicit. For example the question, “How can we improve teamwork within the department?” assumes the level of teamwork is not up to the desired level. To formulate a powerful question, we must be aware of the assumptions. Rather than asking “ How did this go wrong?”, we can ask “ What can we learn and improve?”.

Here are how we can frame powerful questions. They are based on pioneering

work with questions being done by the Public Conversations Project, a group that helps create constructive dialogue on divisive public issues.

  • Is this question relevant to the real life and real work of the people who will be exploring it?
  • Is this a genuine question—a question to which I/we really don’t know the answer?
  • What “work” do I want this question to do? That is, what kind of conversation, meanings, and feelings  do I imagine this question will evoke in those who will be exploring it?
  • Is this question likely to invite fresh thinking/feeling? Is it familiar enough to be recognizable and relevant—and different enough to call forward a new response?
  • What assumptions or beliefs are embedded in the way this question is constructed?
  • Is this question likely to generate hope, imagination, engagement, creative action, and new possibilities or is it likely to increase a focus on past problems and obstacles?
  • Does this question leave room for new and different questions to be raised as the initial question is explored?

Adapted from Sally Ann Roth

Public Conversations Project c. 1998