Questions push the boundaries of our knowledge and what we believe is possible. How might we transplant a heart or put a person on the moon? These accomplishments would not have been possible without first opening the door with powerful inquiry.
Questions lead to a new level of thinking, one that reaches beyond problem-solving toward possibility and creativity. To address today’s systemic issues, we must ask penetrating questions that challenge current mental models and underlying assumptions. Rather than find “quick fix” answers, competent leaders design “inquiring systems” for collective meaning-making and discovery. Imaginative questions can help us re-think complexity by stimulating fresh thinking, focusing on intention, and leading into the future, according to Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs, authors of The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action.
But what makes a powerful question?
According to Vogt, Brown, and Isaacs, powerful questions focus attention and inquiry, touch a deep meaning, and evoke more questions. They are thought-provoking, generate curiosity, reveal underlying assumptions, and invite creativity. They “travel well” into larger networks of conversation throughout the organization or community.
Although, yes/no, which, who, when, and where questions can lead to understanding, why, how, and what questions tend to open our minds rather than narrow the possibilities. For example, consider the differences here:
- Do you value our working relationship?
- Why do you value our working relationship?
- How may we support each other so that our working relationship is strong and healthy?
- What is it about our working relationship that you find most satisfying?
The point is to create useful insight.
Vogt, Brown, and Isaacs caution to not only be aware of the influence of our words but also to pay attention to the scope of a question. What is the field of inquiry we wish to consider? For instance, are you considering the relationship among individuals? Within a work group? Inside an organization? Among external stakeholders?
Also consider the assumptions within questions. Explicit or implicit, questions have assumptions built into them. Seeing the world through someone else’s truth and suspending our own belief system invites examination into both conscious and unconscious assumptions.
For example, a county planning committee wished to create a relationship with people living within and around a natural community as rare and significant as the rainforest. Committee members assumed the people simply did not care about this ecosystem. Through a series of penetrating and direct questions, they began to realize they knew nothing about the people residing there or their relationship to that unique place.
In conclusion, we are drawn toward the questions we ask, and possibilities expand within them. What are my intentions? What’s the next level of thinking I need to do? What would it take for me to create change? What’s possible here, and who cares? What seeds might we plant together that could make the most difference to the future?