As a coach, I spend a lot of my time asking questions and listening to the answers. I often have clients ask me “How do you always know the perfect question to ask me right when I need it?” The short answer to this question is that I don’t always know the right question to ask. Fortunately, I also have a long answer that aims to shed light on my mindset when aiming to ask powerful questions to add value and increase clarity for my clients.
Asking quality questions at the right time is a conversational art that anyone can develop over time and with lots of practice. Developing this skill will be easier if you adopt a few key mindsets and become proficient in a few techniques. These are what I call the tenets of powerful questioning. The following paragraphs will introduce each tenet of powerful questioning that I use when coaching and in my every day conversations to build rapport and add value. While this is a basic introduction to these tenets, I hope they will be useful for you in your journey to take your conversations to the next level. The backbone of any powerful question comes from a developing an eager and genuine curiosity, the first of the powerful questioning tenets.
When people ask about using curiosity in coaching I often joke that I am more curious than George, a reference to the cartoon monkey with a curious mind. Genuine curiosity about people, their feelings, and their experience of life is a vital ingredient for both the creation and delivery of powerful questions. Every conversation is an opportunity to view the world through the lens of another and questions are the keys to unlock their experience. A first step in developing your curiosity is to dedicate yourself to holding space for others. This means listening and asking questions to better understand them, without trying to add your own personal stories to the conversation. When my curiosity is really working, I find myself asking lots of follow up questions to dig even deeper into their story. Curiosity creates the opportunities for powerful questions by fully exploring a story or gaining full insight on a topic.
When we listen to the stories and experiences of other people it is natural to experience some internal chatter and bias as our brains connect what we are hearing to our past experiences. It is nearly impossible to completely silence this internal chatter about how you have experienced what they are talking about but with practice and conscious effort you can suspend it and remain curious and actively listen to their responses with the sole intention of understanding them better. I have never learnt new things from people I have completely agreed with and I have never failed to learn something from someone I didn’t completely agree with if I allowed myself to ask powerful questions truly listen. The same holds true for people who have experienced the exact same things in the exact same way. Non-judgement comes with a commitment to expanding your mindset as much as possible, not to defend your biases. I am biased, and sometimes I am flat out wrong about things, and I am ok with that and willing to change when I can.
Now into the meat and potatoes of powerful questions. When I am thinking about questions to ask, I always seek to bring clarity to both myself and the person I am talking to. When done the right way, with space to answer and without judgement, this is possibly the most important tool. I ask questions that cause people to think about things in ways they haven’t considered to gain clarity on what they really think and feel. This goes beyond clarity of the facts and details of the story. The clarity I am talking about is deeper. It’s asking someone how they truly feel about something. When I am seeking to add clarity, I try and ask people the questions they hesitate asking themselves. I make sure I have enough rapport built with them and that we are talking in a safe space beforehand. I also give people the option not to answer if they don’t want to. Clarity questions involve lots of ‘why’ level questions.
While you have likely heard that open-ended questions are important, they are critical for a question to be powerful. Powerful questions make people think on a deeper level and that simply cannot happen if yes and no are acceptable answers. Also, if you feel you are asking good, open-ended questions and still getting short or one-worded answers, ask yourself if you have a strong enough rapport with the person and if they are comfortable talking to you. You may not want to walk up to a stranger and a very personal question, for example.
This could be the trickiest part of powerful questions. When I am talking to someone I am constantly on the lookout for potential conflicts in thought, recurring patterns, mindsets, etc. and ask questions that seek to make a small shift in the perspective they are taking. It is essential that this is done without any judgement. A powerful paradigm shifting question does not ask someone to think about something ‘the right way’ but rather differently to better clarify how they are thinking and feeling about it. If someone talks about all the challenges facing them, I ask about opportunities. If someone talks about worry of an impending change at work, I ask about what is in their control. If someone seems uncharacteristically uneasy about something they would normally consider trivial, I ask about what is really going on for them or what is different about this time. If they are talking about the past, I ask about the future and vice versa.
Imagine yourself looking at a sculpture. You can gain lots of information to describe the sculpture from where you are standing but you will never get the complete picture without moving around to see the back and sides and top etc.
Powerful questions can take an everyday conversation and make it incredibly memorable. These tenets are also useful when applied to everyday conversations. While not every question can or should be powerful in everyday conversation, coaching uses powerful questions to add value to their clients thinking.
In your Greatness,