Shaping Powerful Questions

One of the most asked questions at, and after, any Art of Hosting training is about the questions.  Developing powerful questions is a crucial element to creating the conversational space we are seeking.  People are hungry for greater understanding of how to create questions, especially after they’ve tried a check-in, check-out or cafe experience that didn’t quite have the intended result or impact.

Sometimes powerful questions appear, almost like magic.  We know they are powerful because we feel them.  But usually they are developed and shaped with great care – and often co-created with others.  It is not unusual for a whole planning meeting (and sometimes more) to focus just on question development for a process – which may seem a bit crazy until you’ve had the experience of well formulated questions in comparison to sessions where questions have not been shaped with the same care.

This post contains general thoughts on the shaping of powerful questions.  Later posts will focus on specific processes where questions are used, like check-in and check-out, World Cafe, Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, Dyad and Triad Conversations and Deep Sensing Interviews.

Three Dimensions of Questions

In an Art of Hosting training in South Dakota this past July, was the first time I heard the three dimensions of powerful questions, coming from World Cafe work and community of practice.  The three dimensions are: scope or scale of the questions, assumptions in the questions and construction of the questions.

What is the scope of the question you want to ask?  If the scope is too big it may shut down conversation (how do we create world peace?) but you might want your question inspirational enough to allow people to gaze higher than they might otherwise (how have you created peaceful moments for yourself/your team/work/family? How could you do that more often or in a different setting?)

People tend to rise to the assumptions made in the questions so it is good to both notice the assumptions being made in the question and also to be intentional about them so the work is more appreciative and aspirational in service of purpose and intention and the greater work being tended to.

In considering how we construct questions, there is a continuum that flows from less powerful to more powerful.  The less powerful questions are ones that can be answered with a yes or no.  Moving along the continuum, more powerful questions begin with when or who.  The next level are questions that begin with how or what and even more powerful questions sometimes begin with why. I say sometimes, because sometimes the why questions also entrench people in their point of view if asked in such a way they invoke defensiveness.  Ask why questions in ways they evoke curiosity and then you’re onto something.

There is a timeliness we generate when we put the word “now” in our question.  “What you noticing now?”  “What has your attention now?”

Purpose and Intention

A key factor in question development is what is the purpose and intention – of your gathering, your meeting, the particular process the question is intended to shape or provide context for, the question itself?  What is the work you want the question to do and then what is the simplist way to ask the question? Purpose and intention is so central to question development that we go back to it again and again.

Language and Shaping

I like to use as much present and active language as possible.  Instead of asking, “What did you learn from that experience?” you might ask, “What are you learning from that experience?”  There is a supposition built into the question – that the learning is active and ongoing. If that fits the purpose and intention of the space you are wanting to create that’s great.  If not, a question targeted to the learning and conversation you want to encourage would be better.

If you are wanting to move in a certain direction, then create questions that presume in the direction you want to go.  “What is the shift you imagine will happen once you leave here and begin to apply what you’ve learned?” This question presume you want a shift and that you will put something into practice post the training.  For some it will inspire their imagination. When it doesn’t inspire someone, they will usually say so without detrimentally affecting the responses of others who are feeling inspired.

It is also okay to take a pulse of what’s happening in a group or process without assuming a direction.  This is particularly helpful when you want to sense into where a group is at, what you need to pay attention to or what might be simmering under the surface.  It is good to have people in a group name their experience sometimes without trying to shift into a particular direction.  The information that surfaces is then helpful in shaping design or process informed by what is present in the room or group, tracking always toward the purpose or intention of why you are in this conversation or work.  Sometimes diversions are necessary to ensure we get to where we ultimately want to go. You could ask a question like “What’s sitting with you now?”, “What question’s are percolating?”  Sometimes I might even ask, “What tension is arising in you at the moment?” but only if I am really sensing tension in the room, wanting to surface what’s there but not create it if it isn’t there to begin with.

Nuances in Question Development

Slight nuances in a question can lead to very different conversations. This is why we often sit with the questions we have drafted and imagine the kinds of responses a question might evoke, noticing how changing the question slightly could generate a different conversation.  Some examples: “What are you noticing in your environment right now?” compared to “What are you noticing in your environment that relates to this project?”  or “How have you been since we last gathered?” compared to ” How has the last gathering impacted you and your work?”  The first version of these questions is far more open ended while the second version is more targeted to purpose and intention.

Co-Creating Questions

It is hard to create really powerful questions all by yourself.  It is much more fun and generative to co-create with others what the questions could be.  Then when a nuance is discovered that makes the question more powerful, the whole group feels it, not just one person.  Collectively we know we’ve gone to a new level of depth.  When we co-create the questions we can start in the ball park of what we want to do and, through the conversation, discover what those nuances are that increase the the capacity of the conversations we are inviting to be meaningful and relevant to the participants we have engaged and the purpose for which we have engaged them.

Powerful questions can shift the shape of an individual and their pattern of thought, a team and its dynamics, an organization and its usual ways of thinking about things.  Imagining they can even shift the shape of the world….

42 thoughts on “Shaping Powerful Questions

  1. Pingback: Shaping Questions for Poweful Check-in and Check-out Processes « ShapeShift

  2. Love this, Kathy. It is in the power of the question that a powerful response arises. Too often “face” or “surface” level dialogue is the norm. This leaves participants “hungry” or feeling that the discussion was just another waste of time, etc. Your passion for mindful and meaningful dialogue is critical in the world today. I appreciate your taking the time to post these articles for others to think about and absorb. This one changes how I will shape my questions . . and therefore shape the world . . .

  3. Very thought provoking. I am especially taken by the comments about the present and active phrasing of questions and about the focus on “now”. Both, it seems to me, can keep people intensely and helpfully focused on what is happening right now, rather than the issues of the past or the concerns (or even the hopes) of the future. Thanks for writing it and sharing it.l

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  6. Excellent post Kathy. I’m doing a session this evening that will include an activity around Powerful Questions and what you’ve written here will be very helpful.

    I leave you with a quote from Robert Fuller in his book, “Somebodies and Nobodies”:

    “In those places where we’re most alive, we are questions, not answers.

    These questions change as we age. We have to listen carefully, again and again, to detect new questions, which may announce themselves in a whisper. At any age, the questions we ask define our growing edge. So long as we’ve got even a single question, we’re not dead. If all we have are answers, we might as well be.”

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