I left a recent business team meeting feeling deflated. On the surface our conversation seemed okay—even polite—but my intuition said we’d swirled once again around the same responses to a repeated problem we faced, without formulating any new possibilities or fundamentally resolving it. (Ever been there with your team?)
Coincidentally, it was about that time I re-read parts of social pioneer Fran Peavey’s By Life’s Grace: Musings on the Essence of Social Change. The book is a few decades old now but, for me, its wisdom is timeless. In particular, this quote rang true:
“Questioning is a basic tool for rebellion. It breaks open the stagnant hardened shells of the present and opens up the options that might be explored.”
Yes, this is exactly what our team (and I) needed. Conscious, productive questioning to rebel against our solidified ways and explore new thinking!
Great questions can awaken transformational energy within people and tap into a force as infinite and reliable as gravity—human imagination. These questions cultivate an environment of curiosity and wonder, and promote discovery, collaboration and invention. Just like new thermoelectric devices have the potential to turn a car’s pollutant exhausts into clean power, a well-intentioned, provocative question can bring promise to even an imminent crisis—or a lackluster team meeting, like the one I’d been in—radically turning it into a life-changing opportunity.
And not any question will do. If you are like me you’ve already experienced: some questions close doors instead of open them. Many of us fall into the trap of posing unproductive questions such as, How can we get out of this mess? even when we aren’t in a dire crisis. Asked habitually, these questions narrow our thinking and emotions, and compel us to act and react from problem to problem, instead of generating a healthier tomorrow.
A more powerful question might be, How can we navigate this challenge to build new capabilities and sustainable growth for our future? Strategic questions of this nature naturally promote high performance, innovative thought, energy, and wellbeing.
What is the anatomy of this type of question? A strategic question:
- Comes from a constructive intent. The words of a question can seem flawless. Yet if the underlying intent is to wear down others, defend, or do harm, the question will be toxic. Truly strategic questions are asked in the spirit of sincere inquiry, where the intent backing the question is generative, for instance, to understand another’s point of view, to foster collaborative insights, or to create a positive way forward.
- Gets to the essence. Strategic questions plumb for the heart of the matter, and give people new frames of reference for the situation at hand. These questions invite us to revisit our fundamental assumptions for operating. This means posing strategic questions is as much a mechanism for unlearning old ways of thinking as for learning something new.
- Fosters innovation, growth, and movement. Strategic questions create a vacuum of the unknown that calls to be filled. They broaden the field of vision so that people experiment with possibilities that they couldn’t see before. And with these possibilities in play, strategic questions encourage people to step up to new capabilities and wisdom.
- Motivates people to fully engage together—mind and heart, purpose and action. Strategic questions create a neutral, common ground from which people can share points of view, make commitments, build bridges between each other, co-create knowledge, implement plans in concert, and fully bring themselves to the chosen direction.
- Produces anxiety. Yes, you read right … anxiety. As brilliant management guru Peter Koestenbaum teaches, anxiety is an opening, a parting of the veil that reveals a profound truth about the human condition: Life, and all activities within it, is fleeting. This realization that everything is temporary and constantly changing often leaves people anxious and insecure. Strategic questions channel this anxiety, urging people to consider beyond the surface of what’s accepted and connect with what genuinely matters. When people work with this tension constructively, they’re less apt to adopt fads that lack depth.
- Enhances the integrity of the questioned and the questioner. Strategic questions promote self-knowing, whether by illuminating internal ways of thinking or uncovering the values that guide decisions and behaviors. Through strategic questions, both the questioner and the people questioned learn what is true for them; the question itself helps people become more authentic. A sure way to strengthen wellbeing and performance!
Are your questions strategic?
For the next three days, notice the questions you ask—with your family and team, with customers and friends. Then, ask yourself: How do my questions stack up against the list above?
The right question can elevate and transform a person and whole society. Through the art and tools of asking strategic questions, you—as a committed and conscientious leader—can help to move organizations and societies from cultures of reactiveness to cultures of imagination, vitality, authenticity, and excellence.
This post was adapted from a book I co-authored, Driven By Wellth. To learn more about it and the transformational leadership programs, coaching, and culture change services at Wisdom Works, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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