‘Isn’t it curious how question has quest at its heart?’ (Brian Watts) This was a great question. It set my mind on a quest, a journey of discovery, and it was intended to do so. It wasn’t a question inviting information, an immediate response, a simple answer. It was intended to stimulate, intrigue, inspire.
Some of the world’s greatest teachers have used questions powerfully to evoke and achieve transformation. Jesus asked so many questions that Gempf wrote a whole book on it: Jesus Asked. Socrates the philosopher is famous for posing questions too: the Socratic method. Aquinas observed that good questions have a way of creating uncertainty, restlessness, momentum. By contrast, once we achieve an answer that satisfies, our minds come to a halt. Is that why God leaves so many questions unanswered, to invite us on a dynamic, profound journey of faith?
We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that good questions often lie at the heart of good therapy, good coaching, good organisation development, good international development. Finding the right questions, the quantum questions, is often the key to unlocking transformative results. In coaching, good questions are often about enabling the client to see him or herself, his or her situation, through fresh eyes. In this sense, it’s about enabling the client to gain fresh in-sight. Questions are often about challenging assumptions, reframing, enabling paradigm shifts.
Questions can also be used to explore emotional experience. ‘How are you feeling?’ Or to surface intuition. ‘What is your intuition telling you?’, ‘What’s your hunch?’. They can also move a person towards action. ‘What would motivate you to do this?’, ‘What are your next steps?’ Some questions are good for framing and focusing a conversation. ‘What would be good use of this time for you?’, ‘What’s the most important thing for us to focus on?’, ‘What do you hope to have achieved by the end of this meeting?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
Social constructionism poses fundamental questions. ‘What has led you to see things in the way you do?’, ‘Where do your beliefs come from?’, ‘What cultural and contextual assumptions does your language reveal?’, ‘How could you reconstruct this scenario into something quite different?’ Some questions invite a deeper spiritual dimension. ‘How would it be if we were to pray about this?’, ‘How far is this course of action consistent with Biblical principles?’, ‘What ethical issues does this raise?’, ‘If Jesus was physically present with you now, what would he ask you to do?’
One of the best questions I’ve found is simply, ‘What’s really going on here?’ Susie Orbach, social psychotherapist, wrote a good book by that title. It invites exploration of an issue from a wide range of perspectives, personal, social and political, drawing on rationality and intuition. Gestalt psychology hints at great questions. ‘What are you aware of?’, ‘What is holding your attention?’, ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What assumptions are you making?’, ‘What do you need to be effective in this situation’, ‘What would improve the quality of contact between us?’
Coaches in a workplace can ask all sorts of powerful questions too. ‘Where is your focus at the moment?’, 'What's the goal you are working towards?', ‘What should take priority?’, ‘Where can you be more proactive?’, ‘What do you need to do right now?’, ‘What have you learnt from this that you can use?’ ‘What should we be celebrating?’, ‘Where do you feel most challenged?’, ‘Where is the greatest return on your effort?’, ‘How can you make more use of what is working?’, ‘What is the most important thing for you to change?’, ‘What would you most like to improve?’
The list goes on... ‘What really excites you about this?’, ‘Where could you show greater leadership?’, ‘What is your deadline?’, ‘What options do you have?’, ‘What are the pros and cons?’, ‘Who will you need on board to achieve this?’, ‘What support will you need to be successful?’ I’m fascinated by how the quality of a good question, alongside the quality of the relationship, the intention behind the question and the spirit in which it is posed, can be so impactful. And I’m keen to find out more. So, please tell me, what’s the best question you have asked, used or received?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.