4 Essential Traits of Powerful Questions

July 8, 2013 — Leave A Comment

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“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” ~ Eugene Ionesco

One of the core traits of transformational leaders is their capacity to ask truly powerful questions. Asking just the right question at the right time with a person or a group can shatter obstacles, open the way to clarity, and transform problems into possibilities.

But what makes a question powerful?

My first experience with a powerful question came on the first day of my training as a coach over 10 years ago. We had barely gotten settled in our chairs when the course leader called me up to the front of the room, sat me down beside her, smiled a warm mischievous smile, and asked: Michael, what fulfills you? No one had ever asked me that question before. But in that moment, that simple question opened a door in my heart that has revolutionized my walk with Christ, clarified my calling in the world, and forever changed the course of my life.

Henri Nouwen once wrote this about the power of questions:

“Which questions guide our lives? Which questions do we make our own? Which questions deserve our undivided and full personal commitment? Finding the right questions is crucial to finding the right answers.”

So what does make a question powerful? And how do you find just the “right” question to help others (or even yourself) break through a barrier, uncover a new understanding, or take their life to the next level?

Questions are a bit like river guides on a rafting expedition. They direct the path the conversation takes, guiding the other person to paddle in one direction or another. It’s important to realize that every question you ask in a conversation sends the other person somewhere to look for the answer. Through your questions, you can send people to their head to analyze data or retrieve facts, or you can send them to their emotions to reflect on what they are feeling. You can even send them into their body to listen to what it is saying to them about their current state. But the most powerful questions tend to be those that take people into their heart…into their soul.

Here are four essential traits of a powerful question:

  1. Powerful Questions typically focus more on the person you’re talking to than on the situation you’re talking about. They cut through the surface chatter of logistics and details to zero in on the deeper matters that lie beneath. For example, “What do you really want here?” “What’s important about this?” “What’s the deep truth you need to hang onto as you look at this?”
  2. Powerful Questions are open-ended, and typically begin with the interrogative “What.” “What” questions tend to target the heart and the imagination. By contrast, “Why” questions tend to take people into their heads and to trigger analysis. For example, if I ask, “Why are you so hard on yourself?” the question will take the person into her head to analyze the problem and try to give me an answer. But if I ask “What do you fear would happen if you stopped being so hard on yourself?” the question will take her into her heart to listen to what’s happening there.
  3. Powerful Questions always come from a place of authentic, open curiosity. They don’t try to lead someone to any predetermined conclusion; rather, they inspire the other person’s own process of discovery. So Powerful Questions rarely begin with phrases such as, “Shouldn’t you just…” or “Don’t you think you ought to…” Those aren’t questions; they’re opinions phrased as questions.
  4. Very often, the most Powerful Question is the “dumb” question, the question that makes no assumptions. “What is it to be free?” “What is contentment?” “How will you know when you’re fulfilled?”

Notice that questions like these cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” They invite exploration. Asking a Powerful Question is a more powerful way to help the people you lead and the people in your life become “unstuck,” find new wisdom, connect personally with God and choose the best path forward. It’s also a powerful way to help yourself, too.

To that end, here are a handful of powerful questions for you to ponder. Don’t try to tackle them all at once. Rather,  choose the one that resonates most with you, and simply ponder it for the next few weeks. As you feel inclined, journal your thoughts on it and invite God to speak to you about it. Notice what happens.

  • What fulfills you?
  • Where are you holding yourself back?
  • What if there was no where to go and nothing to prove? What would you do then?
  • Who are you becoming?
  • What’s missing?

If you want to learn more about powerful questions and how to use them in your leadership, consider taking your leadership team through “The Coaching Leader” Training Course. I’d love to come hang with you and your team!

Michael Warden

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