Following up on last week, take a look at the following quick reference showing questions and their relative strength.
While all types of questions are important, to begin expanding your understanding, it is helpful to start with the more probing questions and follow with the rest to fill in specifics. As an example, let’s take an inquiry about someone’s life: “What do you want?” Now, you could add more to that question, but I find that the shorter the question, the richer the answer. If you asked, “What is it you want in life?” or “When do you want to start living?” you will likely get totally different answers. Should you ask a similar question using who, where, when, or which, you will likely receive a short answer that will not aid your exploration of the subject or fuel your curiosity as much as if you ask a what or how question. Answer the following questions for yourself to see how the answers differ. This time, let’s use the subject of your job. • Where do I want to work? • When do I want to work? • Who do I want to work with? • Which organization do I want to work for? • Would I prefer to work for myself or run my own business? Each of these would likely produce a short response. Then ask the following: • What do I want from my work? • How can I get more from my job? • What would success look like at work? Remember: The least powerful questions provide the least information, such as yes, no, the location, a name, and so on. Since asking questions is critical to your growth, let’s recap and go a little deeper into each type of question. Low-power questions usually start with where, which, when, who, do, will, or can and may provide information, although it is often limited. More powerful questions usually start with how or what, and give you a deeper level of insight into the situation at hand. These questions require the answerer to actually think. It’s important to ask powerful questions of yourself because they lead to introspection and reflection, which expand your brain power. Powerful questions often lead to discovery and understanding, literally opening and expanding the mind. You can usually follow up with an open-ended question like “and what else?” to dig even deeper. The most powerful questions usually begin with why. • “Why did you do that?” • “Why do you feel this way? • “Why don’t you make another choice?” Returning to our example of asking someone about work, interviewers often ask, “Why do you want to work here?” The question can sound judgmental if you put an emphasis on “here” rather than “why.” To adjust the tone, we might ask “Why is work important to you?” because the answer is broader in its implication. How you phrase the question is important, and where you place the inflection with your voice can change the meaning. As a little exercise, ask “Why would you want to work there?” with someone, putting a stronger emphasis on different words in the sentence, asking yourself how each version would make someone feel (being criticized, judged, neutral, or other.) While why questions are considered the most powerful, they can be like using a sledgehammer to drive a tack at times because of their potential critical or judgmental nature. Depending on the situation, a why question can make a person shut down. When we feel judged—and especially if we’re being asked something for which we don’t yet have an answer—our emotional reaction can affect our ability to think rationally. Trying to answer the wrong “why” question can cause us to enter a fight, freeze, or flight mode. For this reason, using “why” to start a question is often avoided in professions such as coaching. As a coach, we wish to expand, not contract, thinking. Just keep in mind that “Why” questions are powerful, and use them in a way that is helpful, not harmful. Don’t ask why unless you can do so without judgement or sounding critical. Want to know a little secret you can use to empower your questions? Develop a deep, genuine interest in whatever the topic is, and in the person of whom you are asking a question. The more curious you are about something, the greater the potential to develop better and more powerful questions. Like many things we do in life, learning to ask powerful questions is a skill, and genuine curiosity will help us to grow in the skill and to enjoy developing it. Without sincere interest, there is little incentive to endure the discomfort that sometimes accompanies asking the questions that can change your, or another person’s, life.
One last thought about questions: They help us prepare for learning and growth, and for making decisions about next steps. The more prepared we are, the more opportunities we see. As Roman philosopher Seneca said, millennia ago: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” In other words, the more you prepare, the more likely you’ll get “lucky” when an opportunity comes along. (To others, you may appear lucky—but your achievements will have come from preparing yourself well before the opportunity arises.) It all begins with asking the right questions to help you think new thoughts. Work on asking yourself powerful questions. I assure you, the rewards will be great! As Merilee Adams of the Inquiry Institute wrote, “Change your questions, change your life!” Adapted from the book Uncommon Sense by Bill Abbate www.billabbate.com You can uncover more on this and other subjects in the book, Uncommon Sense, found on Amazon at: amazon.com/author/billabbate