Many of us have taken courses and completed workshops on public speaking, yet very few of us have learned the importance of asking powerful questions. Asking questions demonstrates curiosity, shows interest, solicits answers, engages others, prompts shifts in thoughts and actions, fosters reflection, helps to reframe a situation, and helps generate ideas and solutions, and build rapport. Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Naguib Mahfouz, has said, “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”
Learning to ask questions begins at an early age. Take, for example, the following Sesame Street clip. In it, Cookie Monster and Prairie Dawn discuss the importance of asking questions to get what we want. and what we desire. But most importantly, they demonstrate the importance of listening closely to the answers to the specific questions that we are asked.
Reporting on a meeting with the great psychiatrist, Carl Jung, Dr. George Hogle reported that “Instead of answering my questions he [Jung] gave me other, better questions to ask myself….” (Houston, 2012). So, before making a statement, consider what questions YOU could ask. Doing so prompts the person to whom the question is directed to, to consider the situation and formulate their own response. This builds independence and interdependence. In other words, we can practice being a fountain of questions vs. a fountain of answers.
Here are three further conceptual questions to consider related to your own question-asking practices. I’ve also included some potential responses to help you further develop and refine the practices.
- What are some common challenges to asking questions?
- Not listening to what the other person(s) has just said, which leads to a disjointed conversation
- Not being genuinely curious
- Not using questions to coerce or manipulate a conversation
- Not being transparent with you reasoning and intent
- Not being clear about a purpose
- What makes a question powerful?
- Builds on a previous statement or topic
- Provides or asks for clarity
- Is brief (no more than 15 words)
- Is singularly focused, not staked with multiple topics
- Engages those who are asking the question
- Minimizes defensiveness
- Prompts thought, feelings or actions
- What is required to ask powerful questions?
- The ability to listen with genuine interest to the other person
- Consideration of the potential impact of the question as it’s constructed
- Being clear about your motivation in asking each question
- Stating your question clearly
- Waiting for a response before asking another question
- Willingness to clarify the question
As you further think about this, here are a few more suggestions to consider for adding more high-impact questions to your conversations:
- Listen to what the others are saying and develop your questions based on that
- Ask simple, brief, singularly focused questions
- Wait for the answers to your questions before jumping into the conversation and providing your responses
- Remain curious
- Practice silence (wait 7 seconds before following up) to give the person time to respond to your questions
I’m interested in your thoughts — how did a question prompt a shift in your thoughts or actions? What are some of your most impactful questions? Leave your comments below.
© 2020, John L. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.