What are Powerful Questions?
Asking powerful, open-ended questions makes it possible to create dialogue where there is none, and/or to have a deeper conversation rather than just scratching the surface. Asking powerful questions is an invitation to greater clarity, action.
Attributes of Powerful Questions
Powerful questions have the following attributes:
- Short and clear (ideally no longer than eight to ten words, without any ambiguity)
- Atomic (a single question, not multiple questions bundled together)
- Open-ended (framed in such a way that an answer needs to go beyond a simple “yes” or “no”)
- Free of bias (careful word choice helps ensure the question itself does not presuppose that a certain assumption or assertion is true)
What are the Benefits?
Benefits of asking powerful questions include:
- They enable innovation and open dialogue
- They provide visibility into areas that require further conversation
There is no short or simple answer when it comes to when to ask a powerful question. Below are a few examples of situations where reframing an existing question as a powerful question might be helpful:
- To get visibility into a complex issue
- To solicit different points of view
- To generate and imagine possibilities
- To build a stronger sense of connection with others
- To identify one or more solutions to a problem
- To uncover areas that may have been overlooked during a previous conversation
- To surface areas of risk
Who Needs to Be There?
- A facilitator
- A group of people who need to solve a particular problem and/or get clarity on one or more issues
Examples of inputs include:
- Notes from previous conversations
- 1:1 or small group conversations to help understand the group/team context
Examples of outputs include:
- Identification of alternatives
- Reaching a decision
- Greater clarity on next steps
Preparing for Success
The best recipe for success is for a facilitator to find a way to fold in powerful questions where it seems appropriate to do so. In some instances, having a pre-prepared set of questions can be helpful. In other cases, the facilitator might ask an impromptu powerful question that is based on the particular context of a particular conversation.
Thought Process for Preparing Powerful Questions
It can be helpful to start by doing a thought exercise, exploring foundational topics like these?
- What is the general context for the conversation?
- What are the main reasons to have the conversation?
- What is/are the main outcomes to be achieved from the conversation?
- What’s in it for the participants in the conversation?
A helpful next step is follow a process like this to articulate one or more questions:
- Write down as many questions as possible that quickly come to mind
- Write down variations on those questions
- Evaluate the extent to which the questions align with what the group seeks to accomplish
- Modify or delete questions as necessary
- Merge questions as necessary
- And new questions as necessary
- Ask another person for input
Below are examples of powerful questions, arranged into categories.
Visioning and Planning
- What is possible?
- What if it works/does not work exactly as we want it to?
- What is the best possible outcome?
- What is exciting to us about this?
- What do we plan to do about it?
- How can we improve the situation?
Brainstorming and Exploration
- What is an example?
- What would it look like?
- What is here that we want to explore?
- What other angles can we think of?
- What is just one more possibility?
Delving into Problem Areas
- What seems to be the trouble?
- What seems to be the main obstacle?
- What is stopping us?
- What is keeping us awake at night?
- What things stand out?
- What still puzzles us?
- What did we do well?
- What should we do differently next time?
- How will we know that we’ve realized the improvement that we seek?