The FIVE characteristics of powerful questions

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 know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.
— Albert Einstein, Theoretical physicist

A great question has the power to transform your business, your life, even the world.

As a youngster, Albert Einstein would conduct what he called “Gedankenexperiments,” a German term that translates into “thought experiments.” One such experiment started with the question. “What if I could ride a beam of light across the universe?” His musings about time and space eventually became what we know today as the Theory of Relativity.

A good question, asked with genuine curiosity, can open the door to a whole new world. It could unlock a new understanding of things you may not have been able to see before. Great questions also support powerful learning.

And who are the question-asking champions? Children! Asking questions is what allows them to grow and understand the world around them. If we didn’t stop their questioning by brushing them off with simple answers, we could nurture this curiosity and allow them to flourish in the world.

You will find innovation at the root of any highly successful enterprise. And innovation almost always starts with a great, but often simple, question. Need proof? Think about Google. Or, Tesla. Those companies were responding to seemingly simple questions.

Having all the answers will not make you successful. Having the best questions will. If you are leading a team, asking the best questions will allow your team to flourish, and tap into resources you didn’t know you had.

Great questions put judgment aside while empowering and supporting flourishing relationships. When you speak to someone, you speak through your own filters. Asking questions allows you to see the world through their filters leaving them feeling heard—deeply. This will, in turn, enable you to get deeper into your conversation and get a better understanding of the other person.

Before we get to what a great question is, let’s look at what else a great question does.

  • It allows you to listen deeply. Your question was likely based on what the other person was saying. A question allows you to explore even further.
  • You can unlock solutions you couldn’t see before. Our brains tend to allow our thoughts to run around in circles. When you ask a question, you interrupt that cycle allowing the other person to see, hear and feel outside of the initial boundaries of the discussion.
  • It opens the door to new awareness, growth and learning. Questions teach you—and allow you—to adapt and speed up learning.
  • You can show empathy and shift your point of view. By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you will get a different perspective and notice different things.
  • Perhaps most importantly, you open up the conversation to even more questions.

Have you ever asked a question that makes the other person literally stop in their tracks? As you look at them, you can almost see the wheels turning inside their head. The look on their face—somewhere between puzzled and what you might see if they were having epiphany—tells you it was a great question. It’s like magic—you’ve given them an opening to new awareness, new thoughts, new ideas.

So, what are the characteristics of powerful questions?

  • They are open-ended. The answer cannot be yes or no.
  • They are short and simple. These types of question often have more impact. How many words are in the shortest possible question? Zero. Silence is a beautiful—and very powerful—question. When you ask the first question, let the other person finish and wait a few seconds. By offering silence, you will get surprising insights.
  • They often speak to the other person’s values or support the other person’s exploration of themselves. Examples of this might be, “Why is this it important to you?” or “When this happens, what do you notice about yourself?
  • They allow for imagination and creativity. It’s like throwing open a new door to a whole new world of thoughts and ideas.
  • They support the other person’s expansion. This is not only good for them, but good for you, too.

Not every question can change the world. Most questions can, however, change your world. They can allow you to become more productive and add an element of fun to both your personal life and your work life. They can add real value and purpose to your existence.

Quite simply, great questions comprise the cornerstone of a happy and fulfilled life.

Entire books have been written on the art of asking questions. Here’s a little cheat sheet on how you can ask questions that will support listening.

  • “I know you had a difficult time recently with (fill in the blank). How are you doing?” When asked in a genuine way—where you really want to know the answer—can spark a real relationship-building conversation. It helps to be specific, as well. “How was your trip south with Judi and the kids last week?”
  • “Can you tell me more?” or “And what else?” These will show you are interested in the response—and will support a deeper conversation.
  • “What if. . .?” This question allows the person to explore without constraints and imagine a future in which the sky is the limit. What would be different? What would you notice about yourself?
  • What’s stopping you from moving forward?
  • Why not try asking a value-based question? This might be something such as, “Why is this important to you?” This kind of question will allow you to get an understanding of the core values of the person.
  • Often you get the naysayers who will say things such as, “That’s impossible!” This is a belief that is usually not founded on facts by a person who is limiting him- or herself based on a thought that, again, is usually not true. A great response to that—and a great question—is “How do you know?”

If you have a moment, I’d love to hear from you. What do you think about the idea of great questions and their impact on our lives? Can you tell me more?