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  • Steve Sphar, JD, ACC

Asking Powerful Questions

Business Leaders Surrounded by Large Questions Marks

At one level, your effectiveness as a leader is measured by the value of what is produced through others. The more production, energy and commitment you bring forth from your people, the better your leadership. At another level, your leadership is measured by your ability to envision and bring about transformation in people and systems. Asking powerful questions can help you do both.

Asking questions is not always easy to do in your role as a leader. Questions and decisions are pressed upon you every day. Sometimes questions are put to you directly by your staff, sometimes decisions are thrust upon you by circumstance. In the moment, you may feel the need to take immediate action or give quick answers. But doing so can shortcut people’s development and may actually set you back.

The more you can involve your people in answering questions and making decisions, the more effective your leadership will be. Asking powerful questions will develop your people by causing them to think through deeper levels of analysis and creativity. It increases their self-confidence in their own ideas and thought process. It also opens everyone’s sense of what is possible and desirable.

What is a “powerful question?” There are many different types of questions. Some elicit factual information, some analyze a specific problem. While these types of questions are often useful and necessary, they don’t generate much energy. A powerful question does more. Let me list some of the qualities of a powerful question:

  • Generates more answers from staff than from you

  • Even more important than finding answers, it stirs creative thinking in others

  • Shifts energy away from a problem-focus and to a possibility-focus

  • Creates a climate of exploration

  • Reveals underlying assumptions

  • Invites reflection on a deeper issue

  • Sets the stage for deeper transformation

Perhaps most important, a question is powerful if you are truly curious and uncertain about its answer. If you using a question to lead people to an answer you already know, it is not a powerful question. The conversation that ensues from such a question enlightens you as much as the person you are asking and has the power to transform.

There are many ways to frame a powerful question. Here are six kinds of questions that can help you pull the best from your people.

Learning These questions prompt creative learning and continuous improvement. Use these questions to evaluate a project at its conclusion or to explore alternatives in a current project based on reflections from past experience.

  • What can we learn from this?

  • What has worked well in the past?

  • How would you do it differently next time (or, this time)?

  • How will your approach incorporate our past learnings?

  • What are the implications of this situation?

Frame of Reference These widen the frame of reference for both you and the other person. They reveal underlying assumptions by seeking out new perspectives on the situation. They encourage self-examination and fresh inquiry by looking at the interpretations we are making about the problem that may otherwise remain hidden.

  • What generalizations can we make about this situation/event?

  • What are the alternative viewpoints on this issue?

  • What parts of those viewpoints would be valuable here?

  • What are the assumptions underlying our thinking?

  • What different assumptions could we make instead?

  • How would our approach change if we made different assumptions?

Visionary Sometimes we get caught up in the details of our action plans and lose sight of the goal. Visionary questions point our outlook to the future. By starting with the end in mind, the final result you want to create, you bring a renewed focus to the planning process.

  • What do you want to accomplish?

  • What will it look like when you’re done?

  • What is the ideal version of the … (task, project, role, etc.)?

  • What is the big picture here?

  • How can we make things better?

Energetic These questions increase the energy and excitement of people. It turns their thinking toward natural sources of internal motivation.

  • What excites you most about this … (task, project, role, etc.)?

  • What are you looking forward to?

  • If there were no barriers, how would you go about it?

  • If you knew you could not fail, what would you do?

  • How does this tie-in to the corporate mission? To your own life purpose? To your career goals?

Action At a certain stage in the thinking process, we must move from analysis to action. Action questions are more practical and concrete but still leave the sense of initiative with your staff. These questions can start general and move toward the specific and immediate.

  • What is needed most? What does the situation require next?

  • What is the best course of action?

  • What is your action plan?

  • How do you want to start?

  • What key steps have to happen first?

  • What is the next step to take?

  • What can we do today (or this week)?

Supportive This may be the most important category of all, questions that show your support. While all of the above questions leave the impetus for thinking and action with the other person, you also want to show you are not abandoning them. Supportive questions emphasize your proper role as a leader – the one who removes organizational and political barriers, clearing the path for your staff to excel.

  • What can I do to help you from here?

  • How can I be most effective in supporting you?

  • What do you need from me?

The questions listed above are designed to help your people feel competent and valued, giving them a sense of fulfillment in their work and a motivation to excel. By learning to ask powerful questions, you set the stage for development and transformation of your staff, your workplace and the world at large. The more you practice framing and asking powerful questions, the more interesting, energizing and effective your leadership conversations will be.

About the Author

Steve Sphar, JD, ACC

Steve Sphar is a seasoned leadership consultant with over 25 years experience partnering with executives and managers to create sustained positive change. He was a practicing attorney for 12 years before turning his law and business experience to the field of leadership consulting. He helps managers and executives develop their leadership potential though one-on-one coaching, leadership training and facilitation of executive retreats. Watch a video interview with Steve on Spirit in Business & Leadership Skills here.

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