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The Power of Questions

In a podcast I recently listened to on appreciative inquiry (which is a technique we employ in facilitating strategy sessions with our clients), David Cooperrider used the term “The Art of the Question” to describe the essence of appreciative inquiry. The questions we ask powerfully influence how people respond, think, behave, and adapt to change. This brought to mind two instances where I deliberately changed how I asked a question to elicit a different response.

I was taking my son back to college for his second semester as a freshman. As we’re driving, he said, “I’m really looking forward to this semester.” So I asked, “What are you looking forward to?” He said, “Soccer and my engineering class.” I realized that the way I framed my question yielded information but little insight, so I went back and asked, “So tell me more about why you are looking forward to this semester?” He then told me that his first semester taught him how teachers grade and that points for commenting on Blackboard really added up, and that he’d been reading about overcoming procrastination, and that he had come up with some strategies for getting his work done this semester, and that he had come up with a daily routine to organize himself. This was the longest conversation we’d had all winter break, and I was thrilled to get a glimpse into what he valued. This was five years ago but such a meaningful conversation that I still vividly remember it.

Last year I was facilitating a group of employees from government agencies who were trying to work together on workforce development issues. The group was not collaborating well. Our March meeting left me feeling depressed and feeling that I was never going to get this group of people to work together. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that members of this group each day worked with people who were at the lowest points in their lives. Their clients were jobless, homeless, uneducated, sick, or just underemployed and unable to make ends meet. This greatly affected the group dynamic when they were brought together – they came to our meeting sure that nothing could change their environment. At our next meeting I designed our agenda to focus on where the agencies were successfully collaborating and sharing resources. We wrote these examples on butcher block paper and posted them around the room and asked the question “How can we build on these strengths?” The mood was substantially lighter and the group more productive. These experiences reinforced how powerful the framing of questions can be.


Georgetown Institute for Transformational Leadership (Producer). (2016, January 25). Positive Change: The Art of Appreciative Inquiry with David Cooperrider [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from Accessed 26 Oct. 2019.


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