Five steps to developing powerful questions

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Last week we shared seven reasons why leaders need to master the art of asking powerful questions. In response, numerous people asked for tips on ‘how’ to develop powerful questions.

Firstly, I want to start with a great quote that frames up why we need to invest time to develop great questions. The quote is from Ray Dalio who founded Bridgewater, one of the best performing hedge funds in the world. He said “Remember that your goal is to find the best answer; not to give the best one you have”.

Developing the best answer relies on powerful questions. Start with thinking about the context for asking the question. Do you want to:

  • Clarify something – a situation, an instruction, an action, a point of view;
  • Probe something – perceptions, assumptions, opinions;
  • Discover/uncover something – attitudes, feelings, evidence, perspectives;
  • Understand something – implications and consequences;
  • Question something – even the question itself.

Next, carefully consider how to construct questions. How a question is constructed will either open up your thinking about something or narrow the possibilities you might be considering. There is a power scale for questions. The most powerful words to begin a question are What if, followed by, in descending power, Why, How, What, Where, When, Who, Which, Yes/No.

While there is a range of words with which to begin your question, the power of the question comes from carefully considering the choice of language. Consider the following questions, both refer to the same situation but evoke very different energy:

  • What are we doing focusing on this at the moment to produce the outcomes we need?
  • How does placing focus on this at the moment move us towards the required outcomes?

The first question will most likely produce a defensive response as people feel forced to justify their answer rather than proceed in a spirit of inquiry which is the intent of the second question.

The fourth area is matching the scope of the question to the need or the extent of inquiry required. Consider:

  • How can I deliver the best outcomes for our clients?
  • How can our team deliver the best outcomes for our clients?
  • How can our organisation deliver the best outcomes for our clients?

Each question progressively broadens the scope. What you have to be careful not to do is to broaden the scope beyond your capacity to deliver the required outcomes.

Finally, there is assumption; almost every question we ask has some degree of assumption within in it be it intentional or implied.   It is important to test assumptions by being willing to ask the challenging question:

  • What assumptions are we making in the way we intend to respond to this question from our key client?

Einstein said “the important thing is to never stop questioning“. I think what he is inviting us to do is to continue to practice building powerful questions so we promote fresh thinking, inspire new insights and learning, and continue to challenge outdated assumptions.


Vivente Australia enables leaders and managers develop the bond between people and performance, creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its best.