“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge” – Thomas Berger
Asking the right questions is often more important than the answers themselves. Asking powerful questions opens the window of opportunity for discovering something new and opens the door to deeper creativity.
Here are some of the things that asking a powerful question can do for us:
- Stimulate creativity, new ideas, and break away from old patterns of thinking
- Bring about greater awareness to underlying beliefs and values
- Encourage our learning ability to enables us to discover new things
- Invite new possibilities and change into our lives
- Motivate action to move forward
There’s a story about Albert Einstein who one day gave his students a final exam paper that was a year old. In fact, Einstein had given his students exactly the same final exam paper as the year before.
His assistant noticed the “error” and timidly made the famous physicist aware of his mistake. Einstein looked closer at the newly distributed exam sheet and answered: “You’re right, these are the same questions as last year – but the answers have changed.”
This funny example shows how science is constantly evolving, but similarly we are evolving in our lives too, and will have different answers at different points in our lives.
If you’ve spent any time with kids, you’ll know that they go through a phase of curiosity where they’re endlessly asking “why” and “what if” questions.
This is a time when they go through a tremendous amount of exploration and learning. This is an efficient way of learning and simply wouldn’t be possible in any other way.
Fundamentally, questions are a highly efficient way to learn new things. Just looking at facts and answers seems to stop our natural path of inquiry and shuts down our creative capacity to think for ourselves.
As children mature, their motivation to ask questions eventually slows down and naturally fewer and fewer questions are asked. This seems to happen because of conditioning over time. In our education system, there seems to be an emphasis towards passing the exams with the right answers, rather than exploring, gaining insights and breakthrough thinking.
In the world of science, great discoveries are made through powerful questions. James Watson and Francis Crick asked, “What might DNA look like in a 3D form?” This led to the discovery of the double helix structure.
Einstein used to practice “thought experiments” which were a special kind of question he used to ask which led to many new discoveries in the field of physics. Einstein’s theory of relativity came as a result of his curiosity in the question, “What would the universe look like if I were to ride on the end of a light beam at the speed of light?”
In business, Steve Jobs asked powerful questions not only to invent Apple products but also for his personal life. Asking himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” If the answer is ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
This may sound like a cynical way of living, but it can be very motivating too, with a hope that you make every day better.
Sparking Your Innate Curiosity
In a way, you could think of questions as an expression of our curiosity, and it’s our natural ability to solve problems.
When we are listening deeply and attentively and have a genuine interest in what the client has to say, we’ll find ourselves naturally becoming more curious.
Not only does curiosity add depth and wisdom to our conversations, but also helps spark the client’s own curiosity which can then open new paths and possibilities too.
Our curiosity might help the client “connect the dots” in their life. Here are some of the things we might listen out for in a conversation:
- A life-changing event or situation that the client might mention
- The clients’ emotions in response to a situation in their life
- What the client thinks about themselves, or others
- Anything else which sparks your curiosity and needs further investigation
It’s in our curiosity where, together with the client, we can really explore new territory and it’s where transformation can happen.
When we’re curious about something the client has said, it can lead the direction of the dialogue, as it calls for further discovery.
Asking the “Why” Question
In coaching, when you can, try to use “what” instead of “why.” When starting a question with “why,” the client may go into a defensive mode, and try to defend their reasons or actions.
Questions beginning with “why” are a powerful way to start any inquiry. But we need to use it with some caution, as it may come across too strong and can feel confrontational.
For instance, if you asked a client “Why did you do that?” it feels direct and might intimidate them from being able to open up and go deeper into their true thoughts and feelings.
There are other ways of expressing the same question, for instance, “For what reason did you choose to do that?” You can see right away that it feels lighter, and a more compassionate way of asking the same question.
However, because of the power behind the question “why,” we can also make some amazing discoveries. We may find the only way to get to the root cause is to ask the question, “why?” But remember to use it carefully in coaching others.