The Power of the Question

It’s precious to watch a young child learn. They ask questions that reveal their naivety and inquisitiveness. Question after question, their minds churn taking in information and formulating new questions. There is a lot of power in the questions children ask, and because of this they are rewarded with information for growth.

As adults, power of questions resides more in answering them, specifically questions that reveal information hidden within us. Self discovery is always a more powerful agent for growth than receiving information from outside sources. But, self discovery requires a catalyst, a person who is insightful enough to ask a discovery question instead of giving direct answers or feedback. It requires more effort to ask a discovery question but it also offers more benefits to the person requesting the feedback. Let’s look at two of the most common situations where discovery questions are most valuable: when we have judgments about others and when we are asked for direct feedback.

Judging Others
We all make judgments about people we encounter in life: he was rude to the sales person, she likes the lime light too much, etc. For those we are close to, both professionally and personally, our judgments carry more weight. Giving straight feedback to a coworker, subordinate, or friend may be efficient, but it can be received with defensiveness and resentment. Neither of these emotions will allow the person to learn and grow. For them, self discovery is a much more acceptable means for realizing faults. When you want to address a judgment you have regarding another person, instead of giving direct feedback, it may be more beneficial to ask a discovery question that helps the person see how their actions or words will affect others. There are definitive times when direct feedback is the best approach, but discovery questions can be very powerful in many circumstances.

For example, Jennifer was talking with her friend, Lisa, about how little respect her boss has for her personal time. He calls her on nights and weekends, asking her questions about work. Sometimes Jennifer has school events for her daughter that she wants to attend after work and her boss will ask her to complete a large project just before she is about to leave for the day. Jennifer continued describing her plight by telling Lisa how frustrated and hurt she is with her boss, but is somehow reluctant to tell him how she feels. Lisa remembered back to when Jennifer accepted the job, excited that it included a large potential bonus every year. It was clear to Lisa that Jennifer likes the money aspect of the job, but resents the level of work it requires. Instead of telling Jennifer this directly, and further angering her, Lisa chose to ask Jennifer a discovery question: “Jennifer, if you did not have the big potential bonus coming next month, how would you respond to your boss’s time requests?” Jennifer thought for a moment and said she would tell him he was being disrespectful of her time and would set stronger boundaries on when she would work. Thinking more, she then told Lisa that it appears her boss is not the issue. The issue actually had to do with her needing to decide if the money is worth the amount of time she has to work to earn it. Lisa sat back and marveled how quickly Jennifer resolved this issue for herself.

Direct Feedback
People often ask for our feedback on something they are working on. It may be a problem they are trying to solve or a plan they’ve put together. It could even be reviewing any old deliverable they are responsible for. What they are looking for is specifics that would make what they are working on better.  When offering feedback you could do just that, give them straight feedback, but a more powerful option would be to ask a discovery question. A question, in this situation, will force them to consider how they approached their work, resulting in growth and reducing the need for future feedback. Here again, self discovery is always more enlightening than a straight answer.

For example, Jerry was interrupted by one of his employees, Mark, who asked for some of Jerry’s time to talk through a product evaluation he was working on. Mark began by telling Jerry about the two products’ capabilities. He continued by communicating how hard it has been for him to choose the best product between the two. Jerry soon realized that Mark was focusing too much on the products’ capabilities and not enough on how the products would positively or negatively impact the business once they were installed. Jerry asked Mark to envision both products up and running in the business and then asked which product would give better results. After Mark thought through the scenario it became apparent which product was the best for his company. Jerry smiled and said, “Well done Mark.”

Asking discovery questions is a real art. It’s hard, but it’s needed to unleash the true power of the question. It requires one to disengage from the emotions of the situation, listen intently, resist the easy path of just blurting out what you are thinking, and creatively crafting the right question. It’s hard work with a great payoff: enlightenment through self discovery.