Not surprisingly, questions are key to the results you see. Ask a bad question and get (at best) useless answers. Ask a great question and there is even a chance for a transformative outcome. Here's the thing though: we are rarely taught what makes a powerful question. We just seem to osmose a repertoire of questions that others have asked us. With the best questions ready to deploy, and the right choice of question at the right time, you will be seen as insightful, in tune and influential. Combine skilled questioning with deep listening and you become transformational, whether as a parent, teacher, coach or leader.
1. Ask permission...
This secret weapon of buy-in is so often overlooked, yet is critical in engaging a blue zone response. Depending on the context, an unexpected and unusual question, quite apart from triggering red zone threat responses, can divert limited reflection resources to trying to make sense of why the question has been asked. If you are in a general conversational context, try something like:
"Do you mind if I ask you a bit of a thinking question?"
"I'm curious - do you mind if I ask you a few questions about that?"
"Do you mind if I throw an interesting question into the mix?"
If the question coming might be confronting, you might ask:
"Do you mind if I ask you a tough question?"
This preps the mind and creates buy-in to reflection-style thinking.
If the context is more formal, shape the permission accordingly. In a coaching session for instance, you may already have permission (even expectation) to ask interesting questions, so buy-in should not be an issue. But, a change in direction might need permission:
"We started by covering fitness as the main context for today, but you've just mentioned some other factors impacting on your health. Would it be OK to explore these, or would you prefer to just work on the thinking around fitness?"
Permission is a powerful engagement tool that covers off the need for autonomy (the A in the SCARF framework from David Rock).
2. What did you learn?
So often, when recounting a situation (positive or negative), we stay stuck in the detail. Bringing attention and accountability to a situation helps someone actually articulate what was gained or learnt (even in negative circumstances). When the brain has to give structural sense to an idea by constructing spoken language, often a great deal of clarity is the result.
This question is also often the missing element when we are holding someone accountable to something that went wrong. Completing this sort of conversation with "What did you learn?" allows the value of learning from mistakes to be articulated and actioned. In this case, follow "What did you learn?" with "What are the implications?" (how does it change things?) and a call to action: "What will you do now that you know this?" To further increase accountability, add "By when, and who will know?".
As a final comment around this question, note that we learn more from what does not work than we do from what does. Adding this question to reflective thinking on such outcomes allows the learning value to be found. Hard wiring the Learning From Action framework set of five questions to your repertoire adds high value to your influence, whether as a teacher, parent, leader, manager or friend:
- What happened? (Tell me about it)
- How did you feel (Articulate the emotions, deepens learning)
- What did you learn?
- What are the implications for your learning? (How does it change things?)
- What happens now that you know this? (Turns thinking into action).
The beauty of this framework is that it is cyclic - after the action has happened, you can ask the same framework again, reiterating the learning-action process.
3. The Miracle Question
Emerging from Solution Focused Therapy in the 1980s, this powerful question - it calls out an ideal future in the brain and strongly connects it to the present. The potential for a better future to be actualised via this question is probably the highest of any question I know.
There are a few variations, and the exact wording cane shaped, but broadly it goes like this:
"If a miracle occurred overnight, and when you work up tomorrow, things were as perfect as they could be, what would be different today?"
The keys are to (a) have the future 'perfect' or 'as good as it could be' state identified, and (b) to have the difference between the current state and the future solution articulated.
This question works powerfully when there is some autonomy and ability to influence the future state, so careful framing, or careful use within this context is required. For example, asking this question to someone who has just lost their partner will not provide a useful answer.
love adding other questions to depend the value of the original question, and two great examples from the second link shown below (via Andy Smith's site) include:
- 1. Who else would notice that this miracle has happened? How would they know?
- 2. Does anyone else have to change in order for this miracle to happen?
I also like to add some ratings questions to further sharpen a now-future comparison:
- How would you rate your current [dimension*], say out of 10, against this ideal state?
- What rating does the ideal state get out of 10? (Beware, it may not be 10/10)
[*Dimension could be, for example, satisfaction, effectiveness, confidence, success...]
This gives a gap analysis for the 'coachee', and can be easily be linked to the next phase of questioning around strategy (to get from the current rating to the ideal rating). I'll be talking more about ratings questions in the next blog on this topic.
urther information on the Miracle Question can be found here:
Call to action:
- Comment back with your top 3 powerful questions
- Start to ask powerful questions - it is the only way to build them into your available repertoire...
Coming soon: Questions 4 to 7 in the 10 great questions series...