The Trouble With Powerful Questions

The history of humanity changed when a single question changed; when we stopped asking, “How do we get to the water?” and started asking, “How do we get the water to us?” When I first heard that statement, it stopped me cold as I immediately saw the power of coaching at work.

In ministry, particularly, I have seen countless miracles achieved and problems solved – all from powerfully questioning the status quo, whether that’s one person’s mindset or hundreds of years of tradition.

It takes courage to challenge your church members or peers and shift the conversation away from the direction they have requested. In one case, I had been called in to coach a ministry team because the team seemed to be stuck and didn’t know how to move forward.

After a full day of observation and individual conversations, I began the wrap-up meeting by stating: “I am prepared to offer feedback about why you’re stuck. Before we do that, though, with your permission I would like to shift the question from, ‘Why are we stuck?’ to ‘What steps can we take right now, today?'”

They hemmed and hawed until I said, “Okay, let’s have some fun. What if I told you that you couldn’t go home today until each of you had identified one action step – it could even be the smallest of baby steps. What steps could you take right now?” They laughed and joked about not wanting to miss a basketball game on TV. Then they started to offer next steps. By the end of our meeting, they had produced a 90-day plan, complete with action steps for each team member. We never did have time for their initial question, “Why are we stuck?”

(This story was excerpted from my book Change Your Questions, Change Your Church.)

The importance of powerful questions was confirmed for me again last month when I was in the UK to deliver a coach training program. While the participants quickly grasped deep listening, what had the most energy was the topic of powerful questions.

These budding coaches easily recognized the shifts that took place during the coaching demonstrations, when they saw powerful questioning in action. Yet they struggled with how to actually use this coaching skill.

As they practiced, I witnessed these three most common difficulties that I see in new coaches who are learning to use powerful questions:

  1. They asked closed questions that stall the conversation and limit possibilities (this is a hard habit to break!)
  2. They stacked their questions one after the other, without allowing space for the other person to respond (silence can be uncomfortable)
  3. Their questions were too long and complex (sometimes the best questions are the simplest)

Do you find yourself stumbling over these common roadblocks to powerful questioning? What helps you to open up, slow down and keep it simple? (Hint: Listening to your coaching recordings is one of the most effective ways to develop the skill of asking powerful questions.)

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