"I can always tell how experienced and insightful a prospective consultant, banker, or lawyer is by the quality of their questions and how intently they listen. That's how simple it is."
I have to admit, I misread the title of this book. I thought it read, The Power of Questions. I expected I would read arguments designed to convince me of the power of good questions. In reality the title is simply, Power Questions. What I got instead was an actual list of questions – “power questions.”
I was maybe three pages into the book when I made, what I thought at the time to be, this disappointing discovery. Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas, however, support the list with anecdotes of how they used these questions and what wonderful benefits came from them. The stories enthralled me and I couldn’t put it down. It was like watching show and tell rather than hearing a lecture. Upon reflection, I received from the book EXACTLY what I had hoped for – I am convinced of the power of questions!
In addition to the list of questions and some outcomes you might expect from asking them, the authors offer coaching for each question. This coaching includes appropriate times you might ask the question and variations on the question, so that you may use it more skillfully.
The Big Idea
Never underestimate the power of a good question!
"The questions we select have the power to give new life to your conversations in unexpected and delightful ways."
The authors tell of questions they’ve used in various scenarios: with former governmental officials, in employee evaluations, as they consult, under pressure and at leisure. Each story relays some unexpected breakthrough that came because he asked a good question.
The authors point way back to Jesus and Socrates as great question-askers. The “Socratic Method” persists today because of the power of questions to guide and instruct. Socrates summed up this method very clearly. He said, “The highest form of Human Excellence is to question one’s self and others.”
I can summarize by saying the power of questions by highlighting two very important reasons to ask them: Questions bring clarity. Questions invite relationships.
"What would you like to know about us?"
This and other questions force us to be clear. Who hasn’t groped in the dark for a course of action? Who hasn’t known people who spend half-an-hour answering a question no one really wanted the answer to? His simple solution is this: ask a clarifying question.
Two days after reading about the question above, I was in a business lunch with a man I didn’t know. He offered the generic get-to-know-you question, “Tell me about yourself.” I responded with, “What would you like to know?” My storytelling was not better than usual that day, but I talked about myself with confidence because I knew what he was interested in.
When preparing for a meeting, why not ask a colleague, “What’s the most important thing we should be discussing today?” I try to end almost every meeting with, “What have we decided today?”
If someone is struggling to articulate what they need to say to you, draw it out of them with, “What’s your question?” I used that one yesterday in a counseling session! If someone can’t make up their mind, gently force the issue with, “Is it a yes or a no?” My indecisive wife and daughters hear a version of that from me regularly.
Get to know someone!
"It's not about you. If you do all the talking, you learn nothing about the person. If you do all the talking you're in the spotlight. If you do all the talking, you don't empower the other person."
I loved this book because I felt it was written by my friend. I’ve never met the author, but I would love someone to ask me these questions. As Thoreau wrote in his journal: “The greatest compliment was paid to me today. Someone asked me what I thought and actually attended to my answer.”
The authors sprinkle the book with quotes about how people feel when you ask them a question. “Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request,” wrote Philip Stanhope, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield. Or, as Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said to them. They will even forget what you did to them. They will never forget how you made them feel.”
As a dad, my favorite anecdote involved something President John Adams wrote in his journal: “I went fishing with Charles. It was the worst day in my life.” His son, nine-year-old Charles, wrote in his journal. “I went fishing today with father. It was the happiest day in my life.” The authors referenced that story to illustrate the outcome of this question, “What has been the happiest day in your life?”
Questions unlock people who would otherwise remain closed off. “What made this day more special than any other?” “Is there something else you’d like to accomplish?” “What parts of your job do you wish you could spend more time on, and what things do you wish you could do less of?” “Why do you do what you do?”
Again, though the book is a list of questions, the point isn’t to quote the precise question from the book but to develop a repertoire of questions that enable you to clarify and to open people up. The authors are so committed to this that they catalog 293 (!) more questions in an appendix.
I loved the book, because I would consider someone a friend who asked me these kinds of questions. And, here’s the point: Another person will feel that way about me if I care enough to ask them some of these power questions.
Why don’t you try one today: “What is the most difficult question you have ever been asked?”