Powerful Questions start with "What"

Maybe you remember your mom or dad eagerly asking, "How was school today?" And you probably quipped, "Fine," threw your backpack down, and disappeared. I used to ask the same question to my second-grade son until I decided to start applying some of what I practice in organizations. So now I ask things like, "What happened today that was unusual?" or "What part of the day was your favorite?" Of course, he still rolls his eyes sometimes, but I've had much better luck with more interesting questions. 

 We can't get to the juicy stuff if we don't frame our questions in juicy ways.

I had the chance recently to work with a small design team, crafting questions for a conversation among leaders at a large healthcare organization. I was reminded of how hard it is to frame powerful questions! We worked for 90 minutes to come up with three questions, and even that felt very rushed. Using this amazing article as a guide, the questions had to: 

  • Focus on possibility
  • Create dialogue and connections
  • Catch people where they are--really matter to them
  • Be simple and clear
  • Generate creative thinking, not problem-solving
  • Touch a deep meaning
  • "Stick" with participants after the conversation was over

We're using the questions this week. I'll let you know how it goes.

Maybe the most practical thing I've learned around framing questions is the little word "What." You'reon the right track if you can configure a question to begin with What. It's much more open-ended than Why or How and doesn't prompt defensiveness or pat answers. And it's definitely not closed-ended, like Did, Do, Is, or Are. Those prompt just a "yes" or "no" answer, which isn't likely to lead to much discovery.

Try this on someone close to you--your child, partner, spouse, or friend--someone you check in with regularly. Instead of saying, "How are you?" try a more creative question, and begin with What. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.