A powerful question is a question that evokes or draws out a reaction, an insight, a fact, or an opportunity for greater exploration.
Think of questions as doorways. Questions open the door to dialogue and discovery.
“Asking powerful questions is one of the simplest ways in which to bring more curiosity into our conversations and, at the same time, offering space and showing interest, and efficiently empowering others to be more proactive and creative.” – Anna Kmetova
What do Powerful Questions look like?
There is a common misconception that powerful questions are exclusively ‘open’ in that they don’t elicit a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer, but in my experience, that simply isn’t true.
In the right circumstances and at the right time, a simple yes or no answer can be transformative for someone in a coaching engagement.
The purpose of a powerful question is to get someone to think deeply about the subject matter. In many cases, an initial moment of silence is always a great response.
It lets you know that someone is deeply considering their answer.
In my experience, powerful questions can be something that my clients forget because the significance of their answer and the transformational power of that conversation has such a deep impact on them.
Conversational Leadership, an online book by David Gurteen, says that powerful questions are:
- Powerful questions are provocative.
- They spark creative thinking.
- This leads to new ideas.
- And new ideas, in turn, lead to innovation.
“A powerful question provokes us to think deeply and to engage intensely in conversation with others that leads to a deeper or broader understanding of a subject and new insights. It potentially changes the direction in which we are moving.” – David Gurteen
And that is what we are striving for. To continuously evolve and improve.
A question is used to trigger a conversation
According to ‘Conversational Leadership’, the first question to ask in designing a question is:
“What is the purpose of the conversation we plan to have?”
Conversations can have many purposes.
The ones most likely to require a good question to trigger them are:
- to make sense of something, especially a complex issue
- to obtain different points of view or gain consensus
- to generate ideas, surface and imagine possibilities
- to connect with other people, to build relationships
- to solve problems or figure out how best to respond to them
- to reveal hidden issues or unintended consequences of our actions
- to search for opportunities
- to identify risks
- to make decisions
Great questions are always a key to engagement. They unlock potential and opportunity in a concise, relevant manner that enables you to move in the most productive direction.
The difference between a salesperson and a coach asking a powerful question is intent. Often, in a sales capacity, powerful questions are leading questions. Coaching focuses on engagement with your client rather than attaining a specific objective or goal.
A lot of literature across industries such as marketing and sales has a leading-edge focus. The question acts as a transition point from one point to another in a customer journey. Ideally, the salesperson or marketer effectively leads someone through each step.
In coaching, you would not be leading a client at all. You would be exploring. You would also not be leading with any preconceived ideas. Your focus lies in partnership with the client to make the kind of transitions that move them closer to clarity and quality decision-making.
Think of some of the most powerful questions you have been asked. It could be from anyone in your life, from a spouse to a powerful question in a job interview. Think about what kind of visceral response that elicits and how you transitioned from one point to another. Almost effortlessly.
Those are the kinds of questions that you want to focus on. Less is definitely more.
Focus on quality over quantity.
A few great questions are more than enough to steer a conversation into interesting territory that surfaces valuable insights for both coach and client.
This article is an extract from our On-Demand Introduction to Coaching course with John McFadyen.
For more on Agile coaching, check out our resource library on our dedicated Agile Coaches page.