What makes a question powerful?

I was stirred to consider this question upon reading The Art of Powerful Questions by Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs. Part of the work of a coach is asking powerful questions, but what is that? We can see the result of a powerful question. It provokes new and more effective thinking and feeling. It pushes individuals to pursue deeper learning. It garners committed and bold action.

questionsThe article suggests three dimensions of powerful questions: the construction of the question (how it is phrased), the scope of the questions (tactical versus strategic), the assumptions of the question. These are important dimensions to consider, but there is an even more important underlying principle here. Questions are only as powerful as the inquiry processes behind it.

A properly constructed question with the right scope and assumptions will not go far if the asker and the askee are not prepared to inquire seriously into what is being investigated.

The better question then would be what is inquiry?

Inquiry is the ability to investigate our own ignorance in its variety of forms. The problem is that much of the kinds of ignorance we are use to facing can be easily solved by looking it up in Google or asking someone about it. A more common kind of ignorance encountered in coaching is the that which can’t be answered easily by simply consulting a book. It’s the kind that requires effort and energy on the part of the coach and client. And that’s hard.

To investigate requires a persistence, a willingness to look at the fallibility of our judgment, a willingness to apply reasoned thought, self-awareness, a willingness to triangulate with other sources of information, outlining the solution space and a whole range of other skills and capacities. Fortunately, these are all character traits we develop to some degree whenever we’re trying to figure something important out.

So turn on your investigative journalistic powers, and discover your powerful questions.

2 Replies to “What makes a question powerful?”

  1. Thanks for recommending a great article. I had the pleasure of reading this earlier this year and I too felt that it lacked “intention” or as you put it, inquiry. The intention of the information seeker will factor into the end result.

    One thing I am unsure of though, is whether we “triangulate” with other sources of information or rather “pull-in and pool” resources. Picky, I know, but perhaps it’s my association of triangulation involving three points and GPS.

  2. Hey Russ! Great to hear from you.

    You’re right that triangulation typically refers to a surveying method by people (or satellites). In this case, I’m pointing to the process by which a data point can be verified by integrating multiple sources. GPS need a minimum of three sources, but more produces more accurate results. Similarly, I think that we can be intentional about how we overlay sources to get at the underlying pattern. Three is good, but more is way better.

    The pooling metaphor is apt too in that we all pull-in stuff either intentionally or not to mix in a pool of thoughts and feelings (that sometimes leaks). But the problem is that we often let it pool in a mess. In coaching world, it’s the person who has a lot of dis-integrated parts – relationships, career, finance, spirituality – that don’t fit together.

    Being able to make sense out of the pool requires intentional integration among other things. I’m finding that the more widely I read, the more likely I can separate the helpful stuff from the not so helpful stuff. I’m certainly finding that not everything in my pool works well.

    Nothing but work. 🙂

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