How to Ask Powerful Questions
I once thought a powerful question was one which solicits a correct answer. Today, I understand it differently. I have learned a powerful question is one which promotes deeper thinking. Eliciting profound thinking from those we want to help and those we need help from is invaluable to us as leaders.
Here’s what I have discovered when it comes to asking better questions. I hope you will find it beneficial in your life as well.
In 2009 a friend referred me to an executive coach. She said she would charge $250 an hour to ask me questions that could help give me clarity. This was shocking to me. What really disturbed me was that this nicely dressed confident woman in her mid 40’s had no experience in the medical field or running a medical practice.
It was a short meeting that left me perplexed and mildly offended. How could anyone have the nerve to sit across from me and in all seriousness ask for such a high fee for what seemed to be such an unimportant activity?
That was one of my earliest introductions to the power of questions. Over time, I occasionally pondered my quick encounter, and with my avid pursuit of personal growth, I slowly began to consider that there must be something to these questions. A year or two later I met another coach, Jeff. By that time, I was ready to give coaching second try…and Jeff charged a much more reasonable rate. I met with Jeff several times. Through the course of our meetings, I discovered the power of questions and how coaching—by asking questions that promote deeper thinking and accountability—could be extremely effective for my personal growth.
Powerful questions compel others to think.
Imagine we were having lunch and I asked you, “If you could only give one piece of advice to your son, what would it be?” Would you know the answer right away? Most of us would have to think about it. We may even need a minute or more to ponder a good, well thought out answer.
So what’s so powerful about that? The thought process. And now you know the answer for future reference. You had to dig to a deeper dimension to discover what is important to you. Sadly, most of us do not take time to purely think through and search ourselves for profound answers. Instead we spend our lives doing, talking, reading, racing. But rarely do we stop and do what I call intentional thinking.
Powerful questions are not answered quickly.
If someone has an answer right away, that means they have already given thought to the question. So, while you may have learned new information by asking, you have not evoked the other person to think deeply. This is important, so stay with me.
When you ask a question and people don’t answer right away, but pause instead, that’s when you know you’ve asked a great question. When you ask a question and the other person becomes reflective, our usual inclination is to keep talking in order to fill the silence. But, you must resist the temptation to speak again too quickly. Do not interrupt a person’s thinking with your words or clarifications. When you ask a great question don’t be afraid of the silence which follows. As a matter of fact, if you don’t allow silence when others are thinking, you have torpedoed the whole effort.
Try it today with a person you know. Ask them a question that makes them think, then give them your attentive silence. Jeff taught me that we must be comfortable with silence if we want to coach or be coached successfully.
Powerful questions are short questions.
I think the best questions are less than six to eight words. This allows the other person to focus on digging deep to find answers, not on trying to understand our question. For several years I have been compiling a list of powerful questions when I hear them from master interviewers. One of my mentors in this area is Charlie Rose. If you ever watch this amazing journalist, you will notice that the people he interviews have to think on a deeper level in order to answer his questions. This same person may have given several high profile interviews. But when they meet with Charlie, they seem to be thinking more deeply and not just reciting memorized answers.
I include some of these questions here for you. Notice the simplicity of these questions from Charlie. Imagine the power of asking some of these questions in a nonjudgmental, quiet setting followed by your attentive silence.
- What makes Amazon great? (to Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon)
- Where is Google going? (to Larry Page, Founder and CEO of Google)
- What do want that you don’t have? (to actor Bill Murray)
- What stands in the way of you reaching your goals?
- What’s your greatest regret?
- What’s on the drawing board now?
- What were the biggest successes of your life?
- What worries you?
- Are you happiest when you’re working?
- How do you want us to measure your impact?
- What’s next for you?
- What’s the most painful thing to remember?
- What do you want out of life?
- Are you happy?
Powerful questions are not double questions.
The following is an example of a poorly phrased question. If you watch television interviews, you will hear examples of this quite commonly.
“What’s your most painful memory, and what did you learn from it?”
These are two questions. In this scenario, the person is not empowered to dig deep because their mind is trying to formulate a good answer to two questions.
And some ask triple questions! I think we do that as an insurance policy. We think to ourselves, if the first question was not good, hopefully they can answer one of the next ones.
Great questions are confident questions. You look at someone directly and intently ask one question in an area that will evoke deep thinking. For example: “What is keeping us from moving forward?” Look at them with a deep curiosity. Pay attention as they formulate their thinking. And then wait…
The person is looking inward and thinking if he has been freely given space to do so. Keep looking with encouraging and persistent eyes—eyes that communicate, go on, I really want to know what you think. This is not a trick question.
Powerful questions are well thought out.
Patience and skill are required in order to ask powerful questions. If you know you are meeting with someone to pursue a certain area, take time to prepare your questions. One approach is to spend an equal time preparing for a meeting as the length of the meeting itself. Think through what you would like to uncover most, and compose questions that will prompt the other person to share their heart specifically on that topic.
Powerful questions are not leading.
Using questions to lead people to what we think, or to what we want them to think, negates the power of the question. People who ask questions successfully are not leading people to an answer they already know. They are encouraging them to discover an answer for themselves. They are curious to know what the other person truly sees.
Asking people to dig deeper is different than giving them advice. Advice has its role, but it is not nearly as powerful as letting a person dig within themselves to discover and articulate what they see. Let me show you what I mean with a specific example from my daily work.
Leading question: “Don’t you agree that you should stop smoking?” As a physician, I want to see my smoking patients break their habit, but asking this question does not help at all. This is a preaching question. Instead I should ask, “What makes you want to smoke?” Then stop, sit down, and listen. Let my patient dig deep and discover. Then follow up with another, “What do you think it would take for you to stop smoking?”
Powerful questions are effective tools.
Powerful questions can be effective in all sorts of settings. But here are a few specific times in the life of a leader:
- When mentoring others
- When coaching others
- When helping others
- When trying to understand others better
- When encouraging others to dig deeper
- When promoting certain team values (by asking powerful questions to your entire team)
Actionable Step: In every conversation for the next week, practice asking powerful questions. Aim to take others you are speaking with to deeper levels in their thinking.
What I Am Reading Now: Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line. Written by a long time family friend and personal mentor, Southwestern Theological Seminary Professor, Dr. Tony Maalouf tackles a topic that is more pertinent today than ever before. Written in 2003, Dr. Maalouf offers the reader have a richer understanding of Muslims, Arabs, and the Middle East beyond the simplified stereotypes portrayed in the 24-hour news cycle. I had lunch with Dr. Maalouf a couple of months ago and was impressed by his steadfast commitment to bringing the Good News to an ever darkened Middle East.
For Further Reading: