The Power of Questions

There’s an article in Associations Now by Jim Camp about the power of questions. I particularly like one distinction he makes between “good” questions and “bad” ones. The bad ones start with verbs (Isn’t this what you really want? Is there any reason you wouldn’t buy this sofa? Can you say yes to may offer?), but the good ones start with the trusty interrogatives (who, what, when, where, why…).

I think this distinction would be particularly helpful in an exercise I often use when doing conflict resolution training. It is a simple one, and you can do it back at the office easily. I have people pair up, where one person has a problem, and the other is the “coach” who will help solve the problem. I encourage people to use actual problems—things they really aren’t sure how to solve or what to do next.

The coach has one important restriction: she or he can ONLY ask questions (interrogative-led questions are recommended). You can’t ask questions that are really suggestions (Have you tried talking directly with the boss?). They must be open ended (What have you tried?).

You may be surprised at how incredibly difficult it is to ONLY ask questions. We want to solve problems, and we want to provide answers. To help means to tell others what they should do. Suggesting to others what they should do is not evil—but it does not get us the same results we get when we merely ask questions and THEY figure out what to do on their own.

And that’s what the people who have the problem often report: they are shocked to discover that they were able to solve the problem themselves—with the help of some very simple, but open-ended questions.