Powerful Question – What are they? 

We may not be able to express all of the features of a compelling question, but we know when we see one. A compelling question:

  • Is thought provoking, invites reflection and finding deeper meaning 
  • Expands possibilities or, focuses attention 
  • Brings underlying assumptions to light 
  • Stimulates curiosity and creativity 
  • Can help a group move forward 

The Dimensions of a Powerful Question 

There are three dimensions to a powerful question: 

1. Construction: The construction of a question makes a critical difference in either opening our minds – or, in narrowing the possibilities we consider. 

Review the following key question construction words on a continuum from less powerful questions to more powerful questions: 

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Now consider the construction of the following questions: 

  • Are targets of disruptive persons getting the services and support they need? 
  • What is it in our community (company, institution etc.) that supports healthy relationships for all? 
  • How can we prevent abuse from occurring in the first place? 
  • Why* is it that so many companies and institutions are dealing with this now? 
  • What if we got it right?  
  • What if we created the ideal solution(s)? What would that look like? 

The question fosters more reflective thinking and creative solutions as you progress from simple yes/no questions to why, what if, and so on.

*A note about the continuum and example questions above:  Unless a WHY question is carefully constructed, (as the example question above illustrates), it can evoke a defensive response. People will try to justify their answer rather than proceed in a spirit of inquiry.  

2. Scope: The scope of a question must match the need we are addressing or the discovery that we’re trying to make. 

Note the impact of scope below: 

  • How can we best share information as a team? 
  • How can we best share information as a company (institution)? 
  • How can we best share information as a community? 

The questions progressively broaden in scope. Sometimes questions are interesting, but are outside the scope of our capacity. (EX: How can we change the social norms in our society that condone superiority and entitlement?) 

3. Assumptions: Almost all powerful questions, explicit or implicit, have some degree of assumptions built into them. 

Review and discuss the assumptions imbedded in the following sets of questions: 

A. How can we create a bilingual education system in our state? 

B. What is the best way to educate English and non-English speaking students alike? 

A. What did we do wrong? Who is responsible? 

B. What can we learn from what happened? What are the possibilities now? 

A. How can we address the lack of cooperation between us? 

B. What are all the possibilities for collaboration between us? 

Which powerful questions assume a solution? Which questions assume error or blame, leading to narrow discussions or defensiveness? Which questions stimulate reflection, creativity and/or collaboration among those involved? 

Examine each question for any unconscious beliefs it may introduce: 

  • What assumptions or beliefs are we introducing with this question? 
  • How would we approach this issue if we had an entirely different belief system? 

Using Appreciate Inquiry 

How do you implement this technique? Before you approach your next discussion, spend time crafting the question(s) your group will discuss. Look for the construction, scope and assumptions in the questions. Consider these suggestions as you craft your powerful questions: 

  1. Focus on the end-in-mind for the discussion or process. 
  2. Explore several questions relevant to the topic. 
  3. Rate the questions: 
  4. Which question is best constructed to promote reflection and creativity? 
  5. Which question has the right scope for the end-in-mind? 
  6. What are the underlying assumptions embedded in each question? The goal is not always to make the question assumption free; work to make sure it has the right assumptions to move your group forward. 
  7. Experiment with changing the construction and scope to get a feel for how each can change the direction of the inquiry. 
  8. Give each question the “genuine test.” Do we know the answer to this question?  If we already know the answer or have a “preset right response,” it is not inquiry. 
  9. Run the question by a trusted advisor to see how well the question works and where it leads the discussion. 

Sample Questions for Focusing Attention: 

  • What question, if answered, could make the most difference to the future of (your/our) situation? 
  • What’s important to you about (your/our) situation? 
  • Why do (you/we) care? 
  • What draws you/us to this inquiry? 
  • What’s your/our intention here?   
  • What’s the deeper purpose (the big “why”) that is really worthy of (your/our) best effort? 
  • What opportunities can you see in (your/our) situation? 
  • What do we know so far about (your/our) situation? 
  • What do we still need to learn about (your/our) situation? 
  • What are the dilemmas or opportunities in (your/our) situation? 
  • What assumptions do we need to test or challenge here in thinking about (your/our) situation? 
  • What would someone who has a very different set of beliefs say we do about (your/our) situation? 

Sample Questions for Connecting Ideas and Finding Deeper Insight: 

  • What’s taking shape? 
  • What are you hearing underneath the variety of options being expressed? 
  • What’s in the center of the table? 
  • What’s emerging here for you? 
  • What new connections are you making? 
  • What has real meaning for you from what you have heard (or learned) so far? 
  • What surprised you? 
  • What challenged you? 
  • What’s missing from this picture so far? 
  • What is it we are not seeing? 
  • Where do we need more clearness? 
  • What’s been your/our major learning, insight or discovery so far? 
  • What’s the next level of thinking we need to do? 
  • If there was one thing that hasn’t yet been said in order to reach a deeper level of understanding, what would that be? 
  • What’s beyond this? 

Sample Questions That Create Forward Movement: 

  • What will it take to create change on this issue? 
  • What could happen that would enable you/us to feel fully engaged and energized about this (your/our) situation? 
  • What’s possible here? 
  • What needs our immediate attention going forward? 
  • If our success was completely guaranteed, what bold steps might we choose? 
  • How can we support each other in taking the next steps? 
  • What unique contribution can we each make? 
  • What challenges might come our way? How can we meet them? 
  • What conversation if begun today, could ripple out in a way that created new possibilities for the future of (your/our) situation? 
  • What seed might we plant together today that could make the most difference to the future of (your/our) situation?  
  • What if we meet each other on the street in a year, what will have changed? 

By implementing appreciative inquiry, you can help create meaningful change and set yourself up to successfully tackle cringe moment conversations.  

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