How to Ask Powerful Questions

Martin Vogt Photographer

Powerful questions don’t require us to shout! Photo credit: martin vogt

What strikes me about working with the professions is how smart everybody is. Lawyers, tax specialists, patent attorneys and others know an impressive amount of technical stuff. Where many of them are weaker is in their ability to phrase good questions and then really listen to what is being said to truly understand.

I wonder whether this stems from our education. It strikes me that schools encourage us to learn lots of answers, but they don’t focus so much on the art of asking incisive questions.

So what do we mean by powerful questions? Eric Vogt, a strategy and leadership consultant, has looked into this topic. He asks us to consider the following questions:

What time is it?

How do you make strawberry ice cream?

What does it mean to be human at this point in history?

 Clearly these three questions differ in terms of their impact and power. Vogt’s work offered these thoughts about powerful questions:

A powerful question…

• stimulates reflective thinking

• challenges assumptions

• is thought-provoking

• generates energy and an area to explore

• channels enquiry, promises insight

• is broad and enduring

• touches a deeper meaning

• evokes more questions

Vogt also considered how to phrase powerful questions.

The Linguistic Architecture of Questions

One dimension of power clearly comes from the linguistic architecture. We know, for instance, that sales people observed decades ago that open questions were much more powerful for stimulating a sales dialogue than closed questions.

“Do you have any problems with your external counsel?” tends to yield fewer selling opportunities than “What problems have you ever experienced with external counsel?”

There are of course exceptions to every rule – closed questions such as “Can I start drafting the agreement?” work better at the close of a sales meeting.

This open/closed distinction can be expanded into a richer hierarchy of powerful questions. Vogt asked participants to grade questions and the following hierarchy was established: 

Hierarchy of Powerful Questions

Why…?

How…? What…? 

Which…? Where…?

Who…? When…?

Closed questions (inviting yes/no/one word answers)

The general thesis is that virtually any question can be converted into a more powerful question by moving up the list. As an example, consider the following sequence:

Are you feeling okay?

Where does it hurt?

How are you feeling in general?

Why do you suppose you aren’t feeling well?

 As we move from the simple yes/no question towards the why question, you probably notice that the questions tend to motivate more reflective thinking, and might be considered more powerful.

There are refinements within this dimension of linguistic architecture. For instance, using the conditional tense rather than the present tense will often invite greater reflective speculation:

What can we do?

seems to offer fewer possibilities than…

What could we do?

However, other factors are also at play when we consider the relative power of the following two questions:

Why is my coat unbuttoned?

Where can we find spiritual peace?

This is an instance where most people would say that the “where” question has somewhat greater power than the “why” question.

After reflection, Vogt hypothesized that there were probably two additional dimensions which define a powerful question:

  • Scope
  • Meaning/Context

The Scope Dimension of Questions

The scope dimension suggests that questions which encompass more people, more volume, more time, or more concerns have greater scope, and tend to be more powerful questions. An example might be the following contrast:

How should we manage George?

How should we manage the firm?

In this example, the question increases in scope and the implied “we” increases in scope as the object changes from George to the firm.

The Meaning/Context Dimension of Questions

The meaning/context dimension is a more complex, subtle aspect of questioning.

Vogt believes that an understanding of the nature of the interaction between questions and assumptions is critical to a full appreciation of powerful questions. Understanding the role of assumptions in questioning may be, in particular, a key to gaining greater insight into the meaning/context dimension of powerful questions.

Vogt observed that questions which challenge or alter assumptions have the power to shift context and change mindsets. Compare the two questions: 

How can we compete with the Chinese?

How can we collaborate with the Chinese?

The second question shifts the context and opens up a different exploration and a different set of subsequent questions.

Vogt decided that questions may have one of the following four impacts upon assumptions:

Create /Reinforce /Alter /Destroy

The order of these verbs may reflect the power of the question. For instance, it is much easier to reinforce someone’s prevailing assumption than it is to alter it.

Similarly, it is generally easier to create a new assumption than destroy an existing one. Therefore, as we explore the nature of powerful questions, we might ask, “How does this question interact with the listeners’ assumptions?”

Final Thoughts

Clearly some questions can be too robust given the existing relationship. Good incisive questions may require a good deal of rapport before they will be received well and accepted. Part of the skill involves us judging how powerful to make the question given the existing relationship.

Having said that, my experience working with those in the professions is that the questions are typically not powerful enough!

Though schools don’t focus so much on teaching us questioning skills, might these skills be learnt on-the-job?

How powerful a question is that last one?

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