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  • Catherine Hodgson


Face it, asking questions makes one a popular person – you’re swapping your own talk time to give another person more air time. People like to talk, so you become fun to hang out with!

However, with this knowledge, how many times have you struggled to keep a conversation flowing and scratched your head searching for more questions to ask? Or, have you sat across from someone and felt the pressure to ask a really intelligent, mind-expanding question and come up with nothing? We start to sweat as we feel the pressure rising from our own expectations of ourselves. The problem is we are so busy trying to think up a good question that we switch off our own listening and do not allow the questions to come naturally.

Open versus Closed Questions

In order to keep the conversation flowing and open up the other person’s thinking, we should be asking more open questions. Open questions are usually questions beginning with ‘What’ or ‘How’, which open up the conversation and get the other person to think more broadly and deeply. Closed questions, such as questions that start with ‘When’, ‘Who’, ‘Which’, ‘Where’, are necessary in certain circumstances when you need to clarify information or get a specific answer. You may only get a one word answer, which can bring an end to a conversation and continuing to ask them may feel like an interrogation. The question beginning with ‘Why’ can be seen as judgmental, so we are often told to avoid it. However, it can be useful when used appropriately, as demonstrated in the 5 Why’s. By repeating ‘Why’ five times the nature of the problem and its solution becomes clear. (The 5 Whys technique was developed within the Toyota Motor Corporation as a critical component of its problem-solving training).

Powerful Questions

David Clutterbuck, one of the international pioneers of coaching and mentoring in the UK, says we should be asking Powerful Questions in order to get the most out of another person’s thinking. He categorizes a question as powerful if it is Personal, Resonant, Acute, Incisive, Reverberant, Innocent and Explicit (acronym PRAIRIE). His list of powerful questions are indeed very powerful, but in the moment, how do you just come up with a powerful question if you have not got a few in your pocket that work every time? Are we then switching off from the conversation, spending the time trying to craft the question and putting ourselves under stress trying to work out if it’s powerful or not?

So how do we ask questions authentically?

I believe that we have to remove the pressure of having to follow a structure as it will feel awkward if we have not perfected it and made it our own. We need to be authentic and do what comes naturally to ourselves. Maybe following this process will lead to more authentic questioning, coming from a place of genuine curiosity.

1. Deep present listening has to come first. Take the spotlight off yourself and your own thinking and rather focus on the other person before starting to ask any questions.

2. Reflecting back to the other person – using their own words, not yours. Summarizing often opens up more thoughts for the other person. This gives the person who has been talking the opportunity to clarify anything that has been misinterpreted, as well as let them know that you have understood what they have said. Clarifying questions would be appropriate here, which may include closed questions. You need to understand the story fully before you can move forward.

3. Now is the time to ask the questions that come to you out of a place of curiosity and non-judgement. Genuine curiosity leads to questions that you yourself would not have thought about before the meeting. ‘What if’ questions are very powerful and can open up a person’s thinking to new possibilities and aspirations. You do not need to know the answers. Ask questions for you which you or the other person do not necessarily know the answers.

4. Your intention needs to be what is best for the other person, not what is best for yourself. What is your intention for asking this question? Does it come from a place of having the best interests of the other person at heart? What impact is that question going to have on the other person? Are the intention and impact aligned?

5. Focus on pull rather than push energy. You are wanting to pull the thinking from the other person, rather than pushing your thoughts onto the person. You do not necessarily have the best answers – the person you are asking questions of is the one who has the best answers for themselves. It’s just a matter of opening up their mind to them.

Go into your conversations with an open mind and open heart. Rather than having your questions set up beforehand or focusing on how to construct a question that you deem intelligent and powerful, be fully present in the conversation. Be in a place of mindfulness. Trust in yourself. Don’t overthink the questions. Being non-judgmental and curious will lead to questions that you cannot imagine you can ask. Take the pressure off yourself. The questions will eventually flow.

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