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Those of us in the coaching and personal growth fields? We LOVE questions.

I remember vividly the early days of my coaching training, sitting in a circle with fellow students, watching as the teachers – seasoned coaches with decades of experience – asked the short, powerful questions that took their clients swiftly from stuckness to movement, from narrow options to a world of possibilities.

Not because of good advice.
Not because someone analyzed their problems well.
Not even because some encouraged or championed them.

Instead, the client’s problem got solved because someone asked them the right questions, unearthing wisdom and creativity from inside of themselves.

But you don’t have to be a masterful coach with twenty years experience to start asking much better questions.

The most powerful questions we can ask others and ourselves have a few distinguishing qualities:

1. Powerful questions are most often short and simple, usually less than ten words. Think questions like, “What would be your ideal outcome?” or “What else could be possible?” or “What part of this hurts the most?” Long, entangled, cerebral questions (i.e. “Are you saying the issue is more you don’t know what you want, or is it that you don’t think you can get what you want?” or “I’m wondering if you are really telling yourself the truth here, because it sounds like you might not be – what do you think?”) are far less powerful – even though our minds tend to think our long, intricate questions are very important! Our long intricate questions usually reflect our (often wrong) stories and assumptions about what’s going on. Our broader, open-ended questions allow the person being asked to get in touch with what’s really going on.

2. Powerful questions are open-ended. They aren’t yes/no questions, or either/or questions. They don’t prescribe a narrow, binary choice for someone to find an answer within.

3. Powerful questions usually begin with the word “what.” Especially when you hear yourself asking a “why” question, see if you can revise it to a “what” question.

For example, asking yourself, “Why did I pick up that bad habit again today?” is going to send your brain into an analytical hunt for an answer, with a sense of pressure to come up with something – whether it’s the accurate answer or not. A lot of the time, we don’t know our “whys,” especially around the important stuff in our lives.

Instead of “Why did I pick up that bad habit again today?” a similar what question, such as, “What was I feeling in the moments before I picked up the habit?” is likely to be more accessible for you and more fruitful in getting at what was really going on.

Or, to share another example, asking your young adult kid, “So, why do you want to pursue that major in college?” is likely not going to be as helpful in getting at the interesting truths for them compared to asking something like, “What about this major feels most appealing to you?” Thinking about this example, can you also see how “why” questions often put us on the defensive, as if we have to come up with a really good “why”? What questions don’t come with that pressure.

So think of these three criteria when you want to ask yourself, or others, powerful questions that will yield new insights, increase connection, and move a conversation forward. And of course, you can apply all of this to your personal life, but it’s also quite fruitful to use these guidelines in the questions you are asking about what’s happening in our political arena, and your role within it, right now.




photo credit: Eryk


Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • I was just talking about this with some friends over the weekend. Thanks for that simple breakdown – it’s so true! I love the power of a good question. And I notice how stuck I get when asking myself “why?” This one simple switch will be very often used 🙂

  • Briggita Baker says:

    Great practical post Tara – just the reminder I needed in my coaching practice, as I know I fall into the ‘long-winded question’ too often!

  • Donna says:

    Hello Tara:

    Very helpful! Especially to avoid judgmental or moralizing approach to ourselves or others. Real answers often come from “irrational” or “intuitive” places.
    You also remind me of beloved therapist who always told me, “Remember, the answers to all the questions, the solutions to the problems lie within you. You already have all the answers inside yourself.”

    Bless you!


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