Marilyn Atkinson is the Founder of Erickson Coaching International and originator of the Solution-Focused Coaching methodology. A former Registered Organizational Psychologist, Marilyn is an NLP Master Trainer and specialist in Ericksonian Communications. Since 1980s she has been helping leading global companies and leaders through Solution- Focused and Outcome-Oriented Coaching. Marilyn has authored eight books, including The Art & Science of Coaching trilogy (Inner Dynamics of Coaching, Step-by-Step Coaching & The Flow of Coaching).
Forming Powerful Questions: How Versus Why
What makes a question powerful? First of all, a strong question assists us to go further in exploration. In contrast, any question that takes a person to the famous answer “because” tends to close off the conversation. Why? Because!
Notice the word because closes off a conversation in the same way now as it did for us as a child. “Can I have some gum?” “No!” “Why?” “Because!” Clearly “why-because” questions and responses narrow choices and the ability to explore alternatives. Why-because takes us to old theories and into the past. The use of the word why, as it relates to previous choices, pushes people into a justifying or rationalizing mode as they feel the need to defend themselves or explain a past choice. The implied suggestion is “don’t go further.”
For example, imagine if I asked you, “Why were you late for our meeting?” How would you respond? If you are like many people, you might rationalize and talk about the heavy traffic, car trouble, how your alarm clock did not go off, how your child spilled milk all over you, and so on. This is because why-because questions elicit justifications and any decision or outcome can be rationalized, explained, and justified in hindsight.
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Notice also that such why questions about a situation often imply that a person is “wrong.” When a person feels that you are implying this, they get caught up in explaining and defending themselves, and in turn, a transformational conversation is not possible.
A better way to get feedback from the past and to use it in making effective shifts for the future is to ask “how” questions. How tends to uncover the structure of the situation rather than leading to justification.
Useful questions might be:
- How did this situation develop?
- How can we learn from it and move forward?
- How was the conclusion formed? How can we go beyond it?
- How might we make it work better next time?
When aiming to get feedback on any situation from the past, start our questions with how not why!
The Future Focus: The Why of Importance
Value questions lead to a totally different focus for ‘why’ questions - the why of importance. A past-focused why question brings out justifications and recriminations. In contrast, when why questions are used to explore value, they can be very useful for uncovering key choice-making distinctions.
Consider, for example, this question: “Why is having this result important to you?” This question draws out the value of the result. Asking for more detail or the thought process behind an important choice toward the future is extremely useful for clarity, insight, and inspiration. People get inspiration when they delineate what is important about their vision, reviewing the important details to move toward a bright fulfilling future. This type of questioning demonstrates respect for an individual, giving the expectation that they will be able to find their own answers. This type of empowerment on a regular basis says (without words): “I believe you have the solutions. I believe you have the strength and resources to operate on your own in this world and figure it out. You are okay.” From this context, a place of deep honouring and trust, people discover their own answers.
Powerful Questions. . .
- Are based on genuine caring and a sincere desire to learn so the person gets what he or she wants.
- Are clear and concise (i.e., fewer words create a more powerful question) and worded in such a way as to awaken the genius within. Usually, that is ‘open-ended.’
- Are asked with a warm tone and softened with rapport-building so the person feels honoured, cared about, and trusted.
- Support joyful learning by triggering resourcefulness, not defensiveness.
- Are often followed with silence so the person has the opportunity to think through the provocative question. Silence also shows that you are genuinely interested in listening.
- Are designed to move the person toward what they desire, not look backward to explain or justify.
- Support congruency and personal alignment with values.
- Create clarity of purpose and direction.
- Empower and design decisions.
- Look from multiple perspectives to give the person wisdom in seeing the bigger picture, thus illuminating and drawing out how to move forward.
- Assist more comprehensive, systemic thinking.
- Develop focus and clarity, leading toward a state of passionate commitment.
The quality of powerful, open-ended questions is like an elixir. Such questions are powerful because they evoke clarity, intention, value, deeper meaning, realizations, understanding, connection, commitment, and action within the person that allows for clear choices. Overall, these questions follow an outcome orientation and key directions of effective project development—inspiration, implementation, value integration, and lead to completion and satisfaction.