The Art of Crafting Subtle & Powerful Questions
- September 18, 2018
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes” ALBERT EINSTEIN
At Stormz, we know how much a well-formulated question can help us widen the scope of possibilities, directly dive into a complex issue, make an enlightened decision, and even build strong relationships between co-workers. Asking a question is an art, a profession, and a token of your worldview. It is, more than anything else, a skill that will be useful in many situations throughout your professional life and that needs to be practiced and improved on a regular basis.
Following the context and your specific mission, questions can serve different purposes, and will therefore come in many different shapes and forms. Due to their fundamental role in fostering collective intelligence, three situations are of particular interest to us.
- To solve problems: During a collaborative workshop, a question will often pertain to a more general issue and include several sub-questions meant to encourage collective discussion. The facilitator will have to define precisely the scope of the questions he asks so that every participant can express their views within the general framework of discussion.
- To make decisions: Whether it takes place after a divergence session or during a consultation, decision-making usually comes in the form of a question where every word is carefully chosen in order not to influence the participants. The interrogation can either be a binary choice, “For or Against?”, or an open-question so that everyone can freely give their opinion.
- To get to know each other: Project management is too often reduced to a battle of egos or an unsavoury mix of misunderstandings. That’s why it’s fundamental to spend some time asking meaningful, non-superficial questions so that every member of your team has the tools to understand the point of view and expectations of their co-workers.
Whatever your goal is, an insightful question can be as valuable as a right answer. Even better, it will help you foster new discussions, consider a problem in a new light, widen your horizons and, sometimes, create a paradigm shift. A question defines a topic and a person much more accurately than a simple answer.
The Ins and Outs of Powerful Questions
You can adjust and calibrate your question following a number of criteria. Always keep in mind that a single question can be expressed in many different ways, and bear in mind how much the wording can influence how people understand the question and how they choose to answer it.
- The Scope: Before asking your question, you have to know its purpose. Are you focusing on individual experiences or larger issues? Are you trying to gather personal feedbacks or foster discussion on a more universal topic?
- The Style: Choose carefully the lexical field so that it clearly evokes the kind of answer you expect. Use popular references and the adequate professional jargon. Carve out precisely the words and expressions so that your question is as memorable and striking as possible.
- The Openness: Whereas open questions are precious tools during creative divergence sessions, closed questions are fundamental for the convergence process and decision-making. One must also take into account that this significantly changes how fast answers can be processed.
After analysing hundreds of powerful questions, and observing how experts made use of them, David Clutterbuck created a new method, known as PRAIRIE, to assess how powerful your questions are - and thus potentially improve them - following several criteria.
- Personal: So that everyone is bound to feel directly involved, or even singled out, by your question.
- Resonant: A question should have an emotional impact on your participants to push them to give a more original and personal answer.
- Acute/Incisive: A question has to cut right to the chase, dive in the heart of the problem; beating around the bush is just a waste of time.
- Reverberating: A powerful question must be able to foster discussion and reflection on the spot, and resonate in people’s minds in the long-term.
- Innocent: The question should never cover up the hidden agenda or concealed goal of the interviewer.
- Explicit: To avoid misinterpretations, the meaning of a question should be crystal clear and leave no room for doubt.
This is why it’s fundamental not to let yourself overwhelmed by short-term considerations and take enough time to identify and formulate powerful questions. And, obviously, use them appropriately. Rhetorical questions are manipulative and sophistic tools that should, without a doubt, be banned in this matter.
Building strong relationships with Questions
The Art of the Question, practiced by many experts and subject of considerable research, shouldn’t intimidate you. It should, on the contrary, help you grow and enable you to take the first step towards your peers, in order to understand or even support his or her actions. Don’t hesitate to put yourself into the interviewer’s shoes whenever a co-worker confides in you about his life trajectory, or ask powerful questions to encourage your friend to clarify his ongoing project.
This can also be incredibly useful to bond with other people in a networking perspective. Are you able to help each other out? What do you have in common? What are your respective stances on specific issues? It can even be useful to shed some light on potential disagreements and urge you to tread carefully on certain topics in the future. Contrary to facilitation or consultations, those questions are, for the most part, improvised, which can often result in dull discussions and insipid exchanges where both protagonists are unable to find the right angle to approach one another in a truthful and honest way. As we mentioned in another article, networking sessions are too often superficial and incapable of fostering mutual understanding and empathy.
Sure, the goal is to have all the necessary information to be able to contact the other person in case of need, but, most importantly, to have all the keys to fully comprehend his point of view and grasp his professional ethics and methods. This way, you’ll be able to call on him in the future while respecting his constraints and fully appreciating his input for what it’s worth. It’s something like a synchronization method, which enables every party to share his stance and voice the relevant expectations for the collaboration to run as smoothly as possible. Sometimes, these questions can even push someone to reverse course, can create new opportunities and bring the situation in a new light. While learning about others’ viewpoints, your own stance becomes more nuanced, complete and accomplished.
In order to strengthen the collective intelligence of an organisation, it’s critical to facilitate the free circulation of ideas while ensuring that they won’t deteriorate or lose their original purpose at each step of the way. To that end, and in order to have a complete understanding of other people’s views and ideas, empathy should play an integral part in every single one of your interactions. A well-formulated and perfectly-timed question is the best way to achieve that goal.
It is for that very purpose that Stormz is developing the Socializer, a new activity based on powerful questions to meet one’s peers, foster meaningful discussions and upend one’s perspectives. Contact us to know more about this activity, to test it or to use it for your next event.