"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning."
- Albert Einstein
D: Hi I’m Dan Oldfield
B: And I’m Barbara Saxberg
D: And this is The Occasional Podcast from Syzygy Learning & Facilitation.
B: What’s going on? Why did this happen? How did we get here? Where are we going? All good questions that can take us to interesting and sometimes, unexpected places.
D: The art of asking good questions, powerful questions, is our focus for this episode. Because powerful questions lead to powerful destinations.
B: Whenever we ask a question, no matter who we’re asking, we’re seeking an answer. But just how useful that answer is depends directly on the quality of the question.
Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
The questions we ask have a direct impact on the journey we take. Let me give you an example.
Often in collective bargaining, people on either side of the table begin with asking, “What do we want?” and proceed to generate a list of demands which takes them down a particular path. If, however, they asked questions such as, “What’s the problem we are trying to address? What do we need and why do we need it? How do we know that?”, it might take the parties down a very different path and potentially, to more meaningful and creative outcomes.
D: The challenge, of course, is that finding and crafting the right questions takes time and effort. We live and work in a fast paced world focused on task, on getting the job done. Fast questions with fast answers, checking the box and moving on.
The problem with that approach is that while it may seem efficient, you may not have addressed the underlying issue or problem. Remember Einstein?
The right question, a powerful question, make take longer to formulate but in the long run, may save you time and energy.
B: So what do we mean by a powerful question? What does it look like? What does it sound like?
First off, powerful questions are open ended questions, questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or a “no”. But not all open questions are created equal.
A powerful open question provokes discussion, it’s thought-provoking, it generates exploration or reflection. Pondering a powerful question is more than just an intellectual exercise. It takes you deeper into your values and beliefs. And touches you on a more visceral level.
When Dan and I got married several years ago, he knew me well enough to know that how he crafted the proposal would make a difference. He could have simply asked, “Will you marry me?”
And given that we had already done most of our wedding planning, I probably would have said yes. Otherwise, I guess we’d just have had a really great party. But instead he asked, “Will you do me the honour of allowing me to be your husband?”
That struck me on a completely different level. It was said with such love and respect, it touched me deeply, and I will remember it forever.
D: It should be noted here, by the way, that we lived happily ever after.
B: So, powerful questions that hit you on more than just an intellectual level can build powerful responses that a person can feel committed to and passionate about.
D: Powerful questions don’t have to be complicated though. Some of the best questions are the shortest.
Years ago, as a young journalist, I was looking for advice on how to best pitch my story ideas. An experienced producer said to me there are two questions you need to ask yourself. And if you have good answers, chances are your story will fly. The questions were simple: So what? And, who cares? To this day, we ask those questions, even in the work we’re doing now.
B: So how do you create a question that’s powerful?
Fundamentally, it comes down to three things... The word craft (the actual choice of words you use), the scope of the question, and the assumptions inherent in the question.
Questions that start with “how” or “why” generally take you to deeper places than “where” and “when”. Thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish, your goal and how you can touch people personally also affects the power of your question. Your choice of words can make all the difference. For example, in some workshops, we’ve begun by asking participants, what makes them hungry to be there. This provokes deeper responses than if we’d simply asked why they’re attending or what brought them to the session and maybe risk getting a response like, “I came on the bus”.
D: The scope of the question must also be appropriate to the situation and within the realm of possibility for the people engaged in responding.
Years ago, I asked a group of people I was working with, “What do we want to be when we grow up?”
I thought it was a pretty good question at the time, rather clever in fact. But looking back, it didn’t really take us anywhere helpful. It was too glib and too broad.
Had I focused my questions to ask: what is our purpose? What’s the most important thing to us an organization? What are our values? Where would we like to be in a year? And what will it take for us to get there? .... We might have generated a much more useful strategic plan.
B: In the same way, there’s a big difference in scope between questions such as, how do we improve our work group? Versus, how do we improve our organization? Or, how do we improve our country?
So powerful questions should leave people feeling empowered rather than overwhelmed. They must be within the realm of possible action for those considering them.
D: And finally, almost every question contains an assumption. That’s not a bad thing as long as the assumption is recognized and appropriate. If you ask a group of people how to fix a product to help it sell, it assumes the product needs fixing. The issue may not be the product at all. It might be how it’s marketed.
Or you might ask, how do we compete with other organizations? That assumes competition is desirable or necessary. But what if you asked, how do we make ourselves distinct? That assumes we want to stand out and frames the question in a different way.
Examining the assumptions in the questions you ask is a key component of crafting powerful questions.
B: So remembering these three components - the word craft, the scope and the assumptions - will help you formulate better questions the next time you bring a group of people together to tackle a problem, plan a strategy or a campaign, or even imagine your future.
Like most things that aren’t immediately familiar, it does take some practice. So the next time that you are bringing a group of people together, try generating in advance a list of all the questions you think might be relevant. Then sit down with somebody you trust and ask them to help you rate the questions in terms of their power, how powerful you think they are, and rework them if necessary. And remember the goal of your gathering. Are your questions on point? Do they speak to the heart? Do they energize and excite? Do they take you forward?
Powerful questions will lead you to powerful places.
D: If you’d like to know more about this or any of our work, give us a call or drop us a line using the contact information on our website. We’d love to hear from you.
B: Or use the comment section of this page. We welcome your thoughts, your conversation, even your powerful questions. We’ve also put some links for more on powerful questions at the end of the transcript.
D: This has been The Occasional Podcast from Syzygy Learning & Facilitation.