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The Power of Great Questions and Allowing Uncomfortable Silence

Published August 16, 2013

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Asking a question is easy. Asking a great question takes some practice. Asking a powerful question takes even more bandwidth. But once you nail the skill you can really open up a great dialogue with someone and dig deep into an issue that you or they care deeply about. Great questions inspire and can facilitate a meaningful conversation with someone you are coaching to help them get where they want to go. This is true if you are working with someone in your own organization or if you are coaching/mentoring outside of your organization.
Everyone knows what an open ended question is but many of us don’t ask them. Here are some things to remember when you ask an open-ended question:

  1. Open-ended questions can result in silence and many times that silence can be uncomfortable. We need to resist the temptation to fill every space with a question when we are having a conversation with someone. Embrace the seconds of silence.
  2. Don’t try to make every question a brilliant question. It’s not possible. Don’t be so focused on what your next powerful question will be that you aren’t listening for the answer to the question you just asked.
  3. Allow your question to hang in the air. Allow there to be some uncomfortable silence. That silence is allowing the person your talking with to really think about their answer. Don’t bulldoze through the silence in an effort to make it more comfortable for you. Let them process your question.

Great open-ended questions start with:

  • What
  • Where
  • How
  • Who
  • When

A closed-ended question will usually result in a one word answer from the person you are communicating with, usually yes or no, which really isn’t that helpful. So we get a quick answer and we think we’re getting somewhere with the individual we are coaching but we are just satisfying our own need for affirmation rather than helping them process what they are truly thinking.
These type of questions typically start with:

  • Did You
  • Will You
  • Have You
  • Is There

Do your best to avoid these type of questions. They just aren’t very effective in helping someone process where they are and figure out how to get to where they want to be.
What you hope to accomplish in working with someone is to help them is to:

  1. Clarify the issues, stimulate thought, and understand each individual’s experiences, desires, and goals
  2. Stimulate awareness, responsibility, and change
  3. Assist the individual as they design action, set goals, create action plans, and take steps to move forward

These are ways that asking powerful, open-ended questions can create change. How have you seen the power of asking great questions benefit the work you are doing?