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Asking Questions with Power

by eloepthien on February 15th, 2010

Based on “The Art of Powerful Questions” (Vogt et al. 2003). This Article was originally published at www.earthactionmentor.org)(

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
Albert Einstein

How much time to you usually spend determining what the important questions are? I am frequently noticing that I take action too quickly, realizing only later where the greater opportunities of a situation could have been found. As many other people today, I am trained to come up with answers quickly, instead of looking for a question that might lead out of the mind’s box into the yet unknown.

Take the Time to Ask Powerful Questions…


Finetune the Three Dimensions of a Question

1. The CONSTRUCTION of a Question

Use open questions; no yes-or-no questions and no either-or questions. Play with the varying power they get by beginning with WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHICH, WHY or HOW. Find an example and make up different options right now.

2. The SCOPE of a Question

The scope should match your needs. Look at these four questions:
A) How can we best design our garden?
B) How can we best design our street?
C) How can we best design our town?

D) How can we best design the world?
Whereas the last question takes the listener outside of the scope of (most) people’s ability to act effectively, the first questions are empowering and invite someone to expand his or her thinking to what is possible.

3. The ASSUMPTIONS within the Question

Be aware that you are transporting assumptions and paradigms with each question you ask. Compare the difference between these two questions:
A) What did we do wrong and who is responsible?
or
B) What can we learn from what happened and what possibilities do we now see?
By reframing a question in this way we can leave our own paradigms behind and create completely new possibilities for action.

Checklist for Powerful Questions

(Adapted from S. A. Rot, Public Conversations Project c. 1998, in VOGT et al.)

  • Is this question relevant to the real life and real work of the people who will be exploring it?
  • Is this a genuine question—a question to which I/we really don’t know the answer?
  • What “work” do I want this question to do? That is, what kind of conversation, meanings, and feelings do I imagine this question will evoke in those who will be exploring it?
  • Is this question likely to invite fresh thinking/feeling? Is it familiar enough to be recognizable and relevant—and different enough to call forward a new response?
  • What assumptions or beliefs are embedded in the way this question is constructed? Is this question likely to generate hope, imagination, engagement, creative action, and new possibilities or is it likely to increase a focus on past problems and obstacles?
  • Does this question leave room for new and different questions to be raised as the initial question is explored?

Examples of Powerful Questions

Questions for Focusing Collective Attention on Your Situation

  • What question, if answered, could make the greatest difference to the future of (your specific situation)?
  • What’s important to you about (your specific situation) and why do you care?
  • What draws you/us to this inquiry?
  • What’s our intention here? What’s the deeper purpose (the big “why”) that is really worthy of our best effort?
  • What opportunities can you see in (your specific situation)?
  • What do we know so far/still need to learn about (your specific situation)?
  • What are the dilemmas/opportunities in (your specific situation)?
  • What assumptions do we need to test or challenge here in thinking about (your specific situation)?
  • What would someone who had a very different set of beliefs than we do say about (your specific situation)?

Questions for Connecting Ideas and Finding Deeper Insight

  • What’s taking shape? What are you hearing underneath the variety of opinions being expressed?
  • What’s in the center of the table?
  • What’s emerging here for you? What new connections are you making?
  • What had real meaning for you from what you’ve heard? What surprised you? What challenged you?
  • What’s missing from this picture so far? What is it we’re not seeing? What do we need more clarity about?
  • What’s been your/our major learning, insight, or discover so far?
  • What’s the next level of thinking we need to do?
  • If there was one thing that hasn’t yet been said in order to reach a deeper level of understanding/clarity, what would that be?

Questions That Create Forward Movement

  • What would it take to create change on this issue?
  • What could happen that would enable you/us to feel fully engaged and energized about (your specific situation)?
  • What’s possible here and who cares? (rather than “What’s wrong here and who’s responsible?”)
  • What needs our immediate attention going forward?
  • If our success was completely guaranteed, what bold steps might we choose?
  • How can we support each other in taking the next steps? What unique contribution can we each make?
  • What challenges might come our way and how might we meet them?
  • What conversation, if begun today, could ripple out in a way that created new possibilities for the future of (your situation)?
  • What seed might we plant together today that could make the most difference to the future of (your situation)?
  • What questions are we not asking ourselves about (our situation)?

A good question can greatly enhance your projects and personal life. It can also be a beautiful gift for somebody else, empowering that person to discover possibilities yet unknown.

You can find the original article on the World Café Website by following this link.

From → Leadership, Learning

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