What is the most powerful question you have ever been asked? While you may not immediately know the characteristics of a powerful question, it is actually quite easy to recognize one.

You can see the difference in the following four questions: 

  1. What time is it?
  2. What possibilities exist that we have not thought of yet?
  3. What does it mean to be ethical?
  4. Did feed get pushed this morning?

Which ones are more powerful than others?  When workers approach you with a problem, turn it around, don’t solve it for them. Utilize this guide to help them solve their situations. In solving problems, asking powerful questions with “appreciative inquiry” will:

  • Generate curiosity and invite creativity.
  • Focus inquiry and stimulate reflective conversation.
  • Be thought-provoking and surface underlying assumptions.
  • Touch a deeper meaning and stay with participants
  • Travel well, spreading around the dairy.

In order to engineer powerful questions to help your people solve problems, let’s look at three dimensions.

Wording. Pay attention to how you start questions and which words you use (how, what, which, what if, who, when, where). Consider the following questions:

  • Are the cows getting enough feed?
  • Describe a time when cows were most productive and healthy?
  • What is it about our dairy’s feed program that supports efficient milk production and animal health?
  • Why is there is so much variability in the cows body condition score?
  • What if we got it right? (Creating a feed program that supports efficient milk production and animal health.)

As you move from simple “yes” and “no” questions to “why” or “what” questions, you stimulate more thinking and creative responses in yourself and your workers. Be careful with “why” questions because they can evoke a defensive response if not worded correctly.

Scope. How broad is your question and does it cover the person’s area of expertise?  Note the impact of scope in the following questions:

  • How can we best share information as a person?
  • How can we best share information as a team?
  • How can we best share information with our business?

These questions progressively broaden the domain of inquiry. Sometimes, questions are interesting, but are outside the scope of our capacity, such as “How can we change milk-pricing in the country?

Assumptions. Almost all questions have assumptions built into them. For instance:

  • How can we create a bilingual training program for the dairy?
  • What did we do wrong, and who is responsible?
  • What can we learn from what has happened, and what are the possibilities now?

The goal is not always to make the question assumption-free, but to use the right assumptions.

Here are some questions that help employees focus their attention on a project:

  • What’s important about this problem and what has been done about it so far?
  • What’s our intention here, worth our best effort?
  • What opportunities can you see in this situation?
  • What do we still need to learn about this situation?

And, here are some questions that stimulate action:

  • What would it take to create change on this issue?
  • What’s possible here and who cares?
  • What needs our immediate attention going forward, and what is your plan, what support do you need?
  • What might get on the way of your plan and what would you do about it?

When you ask the right questions of your employees, it gets them thinking. Hopefully, they will reflect on what they have done and what they can do to find further solutions.

Jorge Estrada is an organizational development consultant and leadership coach with Leadership Coaching International Inc. He can be reached at (360) 481-0133 or Jorge@leaders-coaching.com.