How to Ask Powerful Questions

How to Ask Powerful Questions

Look around you and everything is made up of energy. There is the energy coursing through the wires in the walls that power all of your electrical devices from your toaster to your cell phone. There is the energy of the sun, powering, among many processes, photosynthesis. There is the energy created in your body through processing calories and nutrients. The wood in your tables or walls is solidified sunlight. 

You know there is energy in the words you speak. Just think about the volume difference between a whisper and a scream. Or consider the potency difference between a common greeting and a hurtful idea expressed in anger. Consider the powerful difference between words spoken with a smile versus a frown.

Similarly, there is energy in and behind questions. There are two pairs of potential ingredients to a good question. Either one of them can be powerful enough on its own, but it is unlikely a question will have energetic power if all are absent. These power cells are: desire-need and curiosity-wonder.

Comparing questions to food is a useful analogy. Just as we talk about nutrient-rich super-foods, we can think about hot to ask super-questions. Sure, you can eat iceberg lettuce, which has almost no nutritional value. However, we can make nearly the same salad with greens that have better nutritional content, such as spinach or arugula. Questions are similar. They can be nutrient-empty or nutrient-rich. They can be dressed up with verb selections, taxonomies, or knowledge depths, but underneath the trappings, those inquires are either powerful or not. Different people can ask the exact same question, and the results for the recipients will be vastly different.

As a school example, if you ask someone else’s question, then you are leaving the ingredients up to the question's creator. They may have the appropriate desire-need or curiosity-wonder behind their questions. But they also may have rattled off a series of questions from an uninspired design checklist. In any event, you are taking away your ability to generate better, more powerful questions.

No matter how they are framed, powerful questions are energized by desire-need and/or curiosity-wonder. The first, desire-need, is mostly an external force, usually created by context. If your car breaks down on a rural road, you will suddenly have a potent desire-need. And that will likely lead to a powerful question: “How will I get home?”

The second, curiosity-wonder, is often an internal force, self-generated. If you are looking through a book on ancient Egypt and realize that none of the crowns depicted are represented anywhere in any of the world’s museums, then you might suddenly have a potent curiosity-wonder. And many questions may spring forth…

Of course, standard questions might still need to be asked for quizzes and tests, checks for understanding, and so on. But if you want to ask questions that can drive a conversation for seventy minutes, if you need provocative questions for essay writing, if you want inspirational questions for any occasion, then they must be crafted using desire-need and/or curiosity-wonder.


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