“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
I recently re-discovered ‘The Art of asking powerful questions’ by Vogt, Brown, and Isaacs. Since then I have been noticing how people react in profoundly different ways depending on the question posed to them.
Sometimes they pause, reflect, and then light up in the answer, other times they respond with hesitancy and vagueness. Of course, there are many factors determining the response to a question but I’ve been wondering about the art of asking good questions and how that affects change.
What makes a powerful question?
“A powerful question as one that: Generates curiosity in the listener, stimulates reflective conversation, is thought-provoking, surfaces underlying assumptions, invites creativity and new possibilities, generates energy and forward movement, channels attention and focuses inquiry, stays with participants, touches a deep meaning and evokes more questions” Vogt, Brown and Isaacs 2003
The structure of a powerful question is said to have three dimensions:
- Construction — Which, yes/no or who, when and where questions don’t elucidate much scope for feedback, whereas what how and why questions “tend to stimulate more reflective thinking and a deeper level of conversation” i.e. are generally more powerful questions.
- Scope — Powerful questions tend to have clear limits within which to work i.e. the who and what is included in the scope of the inquiry
- Assumptions — Most questions contain explicit or implicit assumptions. In formulating powerful questions it is important to be aware of assumptions and to use them appropriately. Some powerful questions can challenge existing assumptions. Vogt Brown and Isaacs 2003
Asking powerful questions
Throughout history, there have been those curious about big questions that invite us to clarify what it is we really want. After the Second World War, and the dropping of the first nuclear bombs in Japan, a young Barbara Max Hubbard asked the President of the US Dwight Eisenhower “What is the meaning of our power that is good?” Seemingly he responded sadly “I do not know, I have no idea”. He had not thought about it. Barbara went on to start the Foundation for Conscious Evolution and looked for the answer to her question for most of her life.
“Questioning: Stimulates creativity, motivates fresh thinking, surfaces underlying assumptions, focuses intention, attention and energy, opens the door to change and leads us into the future.”Vogt, Brown and Isaacs 2003
Powerful questions are generators for a different future
At this year’s RIAI (Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland) conference I was intrigued by questions posed by some of the speakers.
Carlos Moreno creator of the ’15 minute city’ concept, urged that we move beyond discussing problems of infrastructure in cities and instead toward urban narrative, he asks “What kind of city do we want to live in?”
Architect Dietmar Eberle noted that if we want a different outcome we have to ask different questions. We have to move away from only asking how much building costs and instead what is its contribution to the public space?
Rob Hopkins his book ‘From what is to what if’ beckons us to ask new questions. Questions not based on abstract ideas of profit and growth but instead ones that capture our imaginations about how we can create healthier and happier societies, beautiful and inspiring places for living, working, learning, enjoying, exercising, and healing.
At the last RIAI (Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland) conference I was intrigued by questions posed by some of the speakers: Carlos Moreno, creator of the ’15 minute city’ concept, urged that we move beyond discussing problems of infrastructure in cities and instead toward urban narrative: asking “What kind of city do we want to live in?” And architect Dietmar Eberle noted that if we want a different outcome we have to ask different questions: we have to move away from only asking how much building costs and instead what is its contribution to the public space? What limits our questions?
What limist our questions?
“Between our deep attachment to the answer — any answer- and our anxiety about not knowing, we have inadvertently thwarted our collective capacity for deep creativity and fresh perspectives”.Brown, Isaacs, Vogt and Marguilies
It is said that children learn half of all the information they will ever know in the years before beginning formal education. These early years are ones of intense observation, innumerable questions, and continuous trial and error. Children’s levels of questioning are said to plummet when they start school due in part to the need to have ‘the right answer’.
This need for the right answer is then inherent in our questions as adults and can close us off from the possibility of engaging in new or creative answers.
Our capacity to ask questions can also be limited depending on our presumptions, (un)conscious bias, expectations, and agendas. We can also be fearful that questions will lead to changes we don’t want. We might not want to ask questions about the future if feel powerless to create change or if our voices are not heard
Powerful questions for co-creation
I believe that our best future will be woven from our emerging capacities to co-create, and by including the public in the design of our towns and cities.
In Ireland, at the moment the only way to participate in development is through the planning process by objecting to it. Denise Murray Architect with Metropolitan Workshop also spoke at the RIAI conference about how they engage the public in the design of urban projects in the UK. She spoke of the process of building trust, listening, and communicating ideas with one existing group of apartment occupants living on a site that was to be developed and extended. In allowing for the process of participatory design to be successful she noted that in asking questions we need to be open to truly hearing the answer. We need to let go of our presumptions and give the benefit of the doubt.
Asking powerful questions is only half of the conversation. We need to be willing to listen to the full answers and take them on board.
The art of powerful conversations
“ A paradigm shift occurs when a question is asked inside the current paradigm that can only be answered from outside it”.Marilee Goldberg — From the art of the question
Powerful questions are precursors to the answers, conversations, and ideas they inspire. I am curious about how we can ask questions that are welcome invitations to conversations that are truly heard even when the topic and process are challenging. And I am curious about how we can hold questions with curiosity and an open heart without coercion and manipulation of power.
Qualities that support powerful conversations include:
- Creating safe spaces
- Being genuinely curious in what we are asking.
- Not focusing on fixing problems but opening up to what might be possible.
- Asking questions that can be answered in many different ways ( Rob Hopkins)
- Being truly present to others.
- Having good boundaries
- Opening our ears, hearts and minds. Listening to the answer.
- Developing greater self awareness — being clear about our intentions and expectations.
We need to have conversations, dialogue, and other forms of engagement that deepen mutual inquiry and foster collective intelligence
“Creating a climate of discovery, suspending premature judgement, exploring underlying assumptions and beliefs, listening for connections between ideas, encouraging diverse perspectives, honouring everyone’s contributions, articulating shared understanding and harvesting and sharing collective discoveries”Vogt Brown and Isaacs 2003
There is much to be learned in our fast-paced world about the art of asking powerful questions and holding powerful conversations. This truly is a practice that can be developed and honed over years. And we can begin by bringing new and powerful questions into our own perception of problems, allowing our questions to be filled with space, possibility, curiosity, and warmth. And we can practice asking powerful questions in and of our work, inviting open-hearted inquiry, the spirit of possibility, and the practice of listening more fully.
“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when someone asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”Henry David Thoreau
Vogt E, Brown J and Isaacs D (2003) The art of asking powerful questions — Catalyzing insight, innovation, and action
Organisations that are looking at how we develop more powerful conversations include The public conversations project and World Café