Ten Powerful Questions for Conversations

BLOG Ten Powerful Questions

in deep conversation by Pam O'Connell
Artwork “In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell

One of the most valuable lessons from my recent meeting with David Zinger was how important it is to ask powerful, open questions. I’ve previously written that what distinguishes great research from the mountains of derivative drivel that are passed off as ‘research’ is that it asks important questions — intelligent, appropriate, imaginative questions that provoke, that open new lines of enquiry, that challenge, that prompt thinking about an old issue in a fundamentally new way. The right questions in research reports can spark revolutionary advances. Darwin and Einstein were brilliant at asking questions no one else had thought to ask. Some such questions are brilliant, the stuff of genius. But some are so obvious they just leave you asking “Why didn’t I think of that?”

David has convinced me that asking the right powerful, open questions may also be the stuff that sparks great conversations. He calls them questions that “bring your audience alive.” In this context, a great question is one that is:

  • inviting — drawing out the other participant(s) in the conversation, irresistably provoking a response
  • engaging — exciting and accelerating and focusing the other participant(s) and re-engaging those not paying full attention
  • generous — open-ended, giving the respondant(s) freedom and range to reply, and time and space to think and respond thoughtfully, not just dichotomous or multiple-choice answers
  • attentive — to be powerful it has to be the right question, asked at the right time, the right way

So what are some of these questions? The following ten are a sampler that David and I came up with from recent experience. All these questions are very broad and open to a wide range of interpretation, and it’s really important that you not edit them, interpret them or narrow them to reduce the breadth of responses they can provoke, because they’re likely to generate responses that you’d never have imagined. I recall asking some of these questions in informal discussions after the end of presentations (mine and others’) and being astonished at how differently the audience was thinking, and what startlingly different learning and perspectives they derived from the presentation.

So just ask them, when it’s the right time, and be prepared to be amazed at what happens:

  1. What stood out for you? (at a recent event they participated in)
  2. What do you most care about?
  3. What’s the change been like for you?
  4. What do you see your role being?
  5. How are you feeling about that now?
  6. What’s holding you back? (asked to probe fears or procrastination, not to find fault)
  7. What would you want to see come out of this?
  8. How can I/we help you achieve your objective?
  9. How do you know that’s true? (asked not as a challenge, but as a means of exploring root causes of problems that may be stuck on dubious premises)
  10. What comes next? (David says this is a classic Keith Johnstone question; the first next step to ‘Where do you think we should go from here?’)

I know — it’s really tempting to narrow these questions, to be more specific, to guide the person/people you’re talking to towards expected or suggested responses. Please resist. Just float these short, open questions out there, be empathetic, be genuine, listen, learn, and be amazed.

What other powerful questions have you found that, when interjected in a conversation, brings your audience alive?

Category: Conversation

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3 Responses to Ten Powerful Questions for Conversations

  1. Tan Yew Wei says:

    After reading “So What?” by Mark Magnacca, i’m inclined to steal one of his lines, which is “All I really care about is ____”. I thought that was great even in everyday conversations. Of course, it does not have to used in this exact form, with any other question hinting at the same meaning being equally (and often more) effective. The key difference from the question in your list “What would you want to see come out of this?” is the emphasis on the “only thing I care about”. It does assumes a certain level of sagacious judgment and trust. However, it still does narrow down the conversation to a single focus point, letting you know if the conversation will work out right from the beginning, and if it does, leading to quite a focused conversation.

  2. Linda says:

    I often ask people “what else?” This works well in a business context when people are trying to be succinct but when you want to understand them better.

  3. Rasul says:

    How does this situation/scenario/narrative resonate with you? (after discussing an idea, event, or a happening). I like to ask this question because what’s powerful is seeing, hearing and experiencing (through the audience’s eyes) how they see themselves in something. This gets to the crux of understanding the needs, wants and desires of individuals and communities.

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