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The Power of Questions

by Jennifer McCoy

One of the key secrets of coaching is asking questions. Not just any old questions though; rather, questions that help people to think, to reflect before they answer.

The sort of questions that lead them to confirm the rightness of their thinking, or to change their opinion or the way they act. Powerful questions that help the person take the next step forward because with greater understanding they can come to a decision by themselves.

You don’t have to be a coach to ask powerful questions. Have you ever asked an apparently simple question in conversation with a friend and heard the response “That’s a good question!” followed by pause and a thoughtful answer? Did you then reflect yourself on the value you probably added to your friend’s day? Most likely not!

So, what sort of questions are powerful questions? What questions can we ask that will cause people to stop and ponder, even for a moment, before answering?

A question like "What do you mean by that, exactly?", provided you ask it in a manner that shows genuine interest rather than challenge, will encourage an attempt at explanation – and may help the person’s clarify their position.

The question "What’s not working for you at the moment?" to someone who is stressed invites them stop and attempt to pinpoint what exactly is going wrong. Suddenly, instead of having an overwhelming situation, the problem can be sorted into a number of parts. You can then start talking about changing the parts, step-by-step, until the situation becomes manageable.

However, unless we focus on asking powerful questions we’ll ask a question like “What’s the matter with you?” and get in response a dumping of misery; or if it’s to kids you might get a resentful “Nothing!” in response. Both perfectly reasonable responses under the circumstances, because if they knew what was the matter they’d have solved the problem already.

How often have you asked the question, “Why don’t you do/go/see...?”, when a person shares a problem, only to be met with silence or a raft of excuses? You see, this question isn’t really a question; it’s your answer to their situation, one that suits you but framed as a question because you’re wondering why on earth they don’t take the obvious course. The ‘question’ has a judgemental flavour to it and your solution is usually unhelpful, so they’ll defend themselves rather than considering options.

What questions could be powerful in this situation? A question like "What options have you considered so far?" or "What would you like to happen?"; a question like "Could you look at the situation another way?" followed perhaps with "Is it possible that...?" where you suggest a different perspective - can all be helpful. A question such as "How important is this (issue) to you?" can encourage a different perspective too. Sometimes the question "How much control have you got over this situation?" can help the person consider who else or what else is influencing the situation. One final and powerful question that a coach asks is - "What’s one thing you could do to change the situation?"

People need to find their own answers. These questions not only show your respect for the person and their situation, they show you’ve really listened to their story and care about them. Remember though, your powerful question may not bring forth an answer immediately. Powerful questions provide food for thought and it may take time for the person to come up with an answer.

So where can you start? Here are three suggestions for action.

  1. Next time you talk with someone who has a problem, whether they are a friend or a staff member, make a commitment to listen first and then ask a powerful question instead of giving your solution.
  2. Practice asking powerful questions in conversations, not necessarily where a problem needs to be solved. Ask the question "What do you mean by that, exactly?" and take notice of what happens.
  3. Listen for the questions other people ask you and you will gradually develop awareness about the value of powerful questions.