• Nichole Sullivan

Powerful Questions


As a therapist, I rarely give advice, I craft questions. Questions have the power to empower people to innovate solve problems and make decisions, yet questioning is a degenerative process. A child asks about 40, 000 questions between the ages 2 and 5, and with the onset of formal schooling the rate of questioning rapidly declines. We conform, we receive information passively, we cease to innovate, imagine and inquire; without conscious effort we continue this trend through adulthood. A dangerous complacency of the mind. Questions push us to reconsider powerful beliefs, or frames, which determine how we think, feel and behave. This process occurs as questions light up a part of the brain called the reticular activating system or RAS. The RAS directs attention and mental resources, opening the gateway to our energy and thus motivation. Questions are this key in motivating others.  Do you think about how you structure a question to influence the response? Question construction, if done mindfully can be powerful enough to change someone’s mind. Here’s an easy 4 step method to get better bang out of your questions. 1. Closed and open questions: Use closed questions strategically when fact checking. E.g “Did you injure yourself at work?” Closed questions typically come with a bias as to the answer. So be very careful that your assumption is well informed. E.g “Were you following correct procedure at the time of the injury?” If not carefully considered, closed questions can lead to mistrust. Open Questions: create an opportunity to discover. They can lead to greater understanding and increase likelihood of engagement in a conversation. E.g “Tell me about your injury?” Open questions should be used when trying to build rapport and bring someone on side. Especially if they are feeling misunderstood or not listened to e.g. “Help me understand the steps you took before your injury?” 2. The tense of the question is also critical. Questions in the past test facts and data e.g. “What steps did you take?” Present tense questions check current attitudes/knowledge e. g. “Explain the safety procedure to me”. Limit these questions if trying to build a relationship as many closed questions lead to a power differential and can come off as interrogative. Future tense questions prime people for future behaviour and lead to solution seeking and commitment e.g. “What steps will you take next time working in those same conditions?” 3. Audience: changing who is the subject of the question can be very powerful. Small audience questions place the spotlight right on one person e.g. “what are your thoughts on this policy?” These questions promote internal responsibility and ownership. Similarly “Why aren’t they doing something about this problem?” Changed to “Why aren’t I doing something about it” promotes a greater sense of control and creates a call to action. Medium audience questions allow for testing or normative beliefs amongst a group e.g. “What does the team think of the policy?” These questions often promote more honest responses as the heat is off the individual. Interestingly we usually share our own beliefs when asked medium audience questions anyway. Big board audience questions can powerfully drive change e.g. “What do people generally think about safety policies?” We know that questioning is the key to innovation, to changing minds and getting different results. Imaging a world where we encourage, embrace and train our employees to question and to stop following without question, doing the same old thing and getting the same old result. We can help you get there.  


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