Asking Powerful Questions

When having a conversation about change, it is important that every question is as powerful and effective as possible. When we don’t ask the most effective questions, we may find ourselves feeling like we are administering a survey rather than having a real conversation. When we fall into interviewer mode, the other person takes on a passive role in the conversation, making it difficult to facilitate real change, as described in the post on Facilitating Real Change.

The goal of an effective conversation about change is to engage with a spirit of collaboration, empowering the other person to talk about their own reasons for change. Therefore, we want to minimize the number of questions we need to ask, maximizing our ability to elicit rich responses from the other person. When we ask powerful questions, we can effectively elicit better responses, reducing the risk of falling into interviewer mode.

Here are some tips for asking powerful questions:

Start your questions with “What” or “How”. When starting your questions with these two words, it invites an in-depth response from the other person, beyond just “yes” or “no”. For example, “What are some things you are looking to change?” and “How might you make these changes?” requires the other person to go beyond a simple one-word response.  “What” and “how” make your questions open-ended, whereas “do”, “are”, and “is” closes them, allowing a limited response.

Avoid asking whyAsking “why” questions may seem effective since it keeps the question open-ended, but it is actually not as effective as posing the same question using “what” or “how”. Asking why someone engages in a particular behavior or holds a particular belief is not effective because people generally do not consciously know the actual reasons why they do what they do. When asked why, our brains react with what psychologists call a ‘post-hawk rationalization’. Put simply, this means our brains trick us into thinking we know our own motives by making up a story about our own behavior, after the fact.

Get to their why by asking what. As described in the post on “Why” before “How”, we need to elicit the other persons own reasons for change before focusing on how these changes can be made. So how do you get to why without asking why? The answer is simple: Use what instead. For example, rather than asking, “why do you want to make these changes?” you could ask, “What are some of your reasons for making these changes?” Although the difference is subtle, you will likely hear very different responses. When asking why, the other person will likely give obvious reasons that include escaping things they dislike, keeping them in the same mental rut of frustration or fear. When asking what people are more likely to give positive reasons that pull them out of the rut.

For example, the question “why do you want to stop gambling?” is more likely to elicit a rut response, such as “Because I’m sick of losing all this money, I feel so guilty, I’m so stupid” vs. “What are some of your reasons for making this change in your gambling habits?” which is more likely to elicit a positive reason such as “Because I have young kids and want to save for their their future.” Although the first response is part of their reason, it does not hold as much motivational power as the second response. When we ask what, we get to the core of what they actually want, eliciting a meaningful goal that can pull the person out of destructive habits.

In summary, powerful questions have the following feature: they empower the other person to explore their own reasons for making a change. The language we use when having conversations about change matters. When we communicate effectively, we increase the chances of eliciting better responses, and in turn, increase the likelihood of long-term change.

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