We live in a fast paced world, demanding of answers. Leaders are expected to be decisive, articulate and bold – but leadership is not about knowing all the answers. It’s about asking great questions that inspire, motivate and empower others. It’s about developing a culture where asking questions is encouraged, and careful listening is valued.
The power of a good question points to the very premise of the coaching discipline. Good coaches resist the impulse to prescribe solutions, instead asking questions to clients we believe are full, whole and capable of generating excellent answers. Coaches are thought partners who evoke insights that help clients create their own pathways.
One technique I use in my practice is called Q-Storming. It operates very much like a strategic brainstorming session where an individual presents an issue, except that the listening group generates questions instead of a list of possible solutions.
Created by Marilee Adams of the Inquiry Institute, Q-Storming is based on the premise that “every question missed is a crisis waiting to happen.” The technique is a method for discovering those questions that promote breakthroughs in decision-making, problem-solving, strategic planning, innovation, operational excellence, and culture.
Not all questions are created equal. Nearly all of the questions we ask begin with one of six words: “who,” “what,” “why,” “where,” “when,” or “how.” While each of these words help us gather facts and understand each other in conversation, not all of them yield wisdom.
“Why” questions can easily put others on the defensive, prompting them to go backwards in time. I recently conducted a workshop with a group of major donors in Los Angeles. When I asked them, “Why do you give?”, the answers largely focused on the past as they justified their giving in tradition, role-models, and long-standing values.
While why questions prompt us to defend our positions, “what” questions tend to be more generative and productive. They help the brain behave as an efficient search engine, creating specific queries that produce focused and future-oriented solutions.
When I changed the question for the donors to “What compels you to give?”, the answers focused on legacy and the impact their gifts would one day have on their children and grandchildren. Imagine a similar question asked of you: Why did you make that decision? vs. What led you to make that decision?
Good questions are particularly powerful in meetings, where value is placed on the problem solving we do for others and not the questions we ask of our teammates. When conversation devolves into blame or historical recollection, asking a generative “what” question, or praising the question of another, will help keep your team stay focused on the future and working together to solve challenging problems.
I wanted to share with you one of my favorite stories that illuminates the power of inquiry. Isidor Rabi, a Nobel laureate in physics, was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor, lawyer or businessman like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”
Isidor explained, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist.”
Questions wake us up and slow us down in a world where those around us are constantly clamoring for fast answers, sometimes any answer. They remind us that we don’t have all the answers and probably shouldn’t. But with a spirit of curiosity and learning, we better solve problems, empower our teams and build new pathways than we could ever do alone.
What role do questions play in your conversations?
What is a question that changed your life?
What is a question you keep avoiding and why?
Learn more about the power of questions through my work in communications training