After leading teams for the last decade and a half, if there is one skill which has made the biggest difference in my ability to improve individual and team performance, it has been my ability to Ask Powerful Questions.

This is not to say that other skills like listening, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution are not important – they certainly are. But asking powerful questions is that precise and sharp tool that opens up so many options for leadership and coaching which aren’t available otherwise.

Whenever I find myself in a logjam — a difficult or a tricky situation — I go over my ever-expanding list of powerful questions, and I always find a way out by asking one or more of these questions.

Below are different situations and the exact powerful questions you can ask in each of these situations. Before diving into the list, let’s spend some time thinking about what powerful questions really are, and what makes a question powerful?

Are You Asking Powerful Questions - To Yourself and Your Team

Are You Asking Enough Powerful Questions – To Yourself and Your Team?

What are Powerful Questions?

  • Powerful Questions are not what you hear normally. A powerful question comes up as an unexpected surprise to the listener and stops them in their tracks. For example – “How are you doing?” is not a powerful question. Instead “What was your favorite moment thus far today?” is one such powerful question.
  • We have well-rehearsed and scripted answers for the usual questions from our colleagues, friends, and leaders. Powerful Questions makes one think and come up with original answers. If a question makes you think about your life, priorities, values, etc, it is a powerful question.
  • Powerful Questions goes deep into topics people don’t normally think or talk about. They don’t linger on the surface where there is emotional safety. Instead, powerful questions force you to be vulnerable. It requires some courage to face the discomfort of answering a Powerful Question.
  • Powerful Questions can lead to deep and valuable insights. They take longer to answer, but they often end up revealing something important about yourself which you were not aware of before. I am still enjoying the benefits of many such valuable insights when others have asked me powerful questions in the past.

Now that we have covered what powerful questions are, let us go over some questions which you can use in different situations. They can become your most important tool to influence people and produce results.

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

― Richard Feynman

Purpose – To Measure Your Own Effectiveness as a Leader

Whom to Ask – Yourself

Powerful Questions:-

  1. Do my reports regularly bring their biggest challenges to my attention?
  2. Would my reports gladly work for me again?
  3. Do my reports feel I have helped them grow by providing challenging opportunities?
  4. Do my reports say that I have supported and coached them whenever they have felt stuck or challenged?
  5. Do my reports trust me when I make a promise? Can they count on me?

Purpose – To Create a Motivated, Engaged, and Empowered team.

Whom To Ask – Each Individual In Your Team. You are looking for a resounding “YES”

Powerful Questions:-

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. Do you have what (tools, resources, etc) you need to do your work right?
  3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for good work?
  5. Does your supervisor or someone at work seem to care about you as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  7. At work, do your opinions seem to count/matter?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your work is important?
  9. Are your co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do you have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, have you talked to someone about your progress?
  12. This last year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Powerful Questions Quote

Purpose – Help People Find Their Inner Purpose

Whom to Ask – Each Individual In Your Team

Powerful Questions:-

  1. What are you good at doing? What have you gotten noticed for throughout your career?
  2. What do you enjoy? What do you look forward to doing? What energizes you? What do you love about your work?
  3. What feels most useful? What kind of work makes you proud? Which of your tasks are most critical?
  4. What are your highest priorities in life? Where does work fit in?
  5. What creates a sense of forward momentum? What are you learning now that will be useful in the future? Where do you see yourself headed next? What are you doing today that will help you achieve your long term goals?
  6. How do you relate to others? What would a team of your favorite people look like? How does your work enhance your family and social connections?
  7. What word do you want people to use to describe you? Do they describe you this way now?
  8. What is “on hold” in your life? What is that you want to do someday / one day? What are you waiting for?
  9. What is the one thing you would regret if you never did anything about it?
  10. What do you want your legacy to be? What do you want people to say at your funeral?

Purpose – To Understand Your Employees as Human Beings and to Take Care of Their Motivation, Engagement, and Growth

Whom to Ask – Each Individual In Your Team

Powerful Questions:-

  1. What motivated you to be part of this company and team in the first place?
  2. How do you hope to personally and professionally benefit from working on this project?
  3. If you were to receive a lifetime achievement award, what would you want to be recognized for?
  4. What is important to you outside of the work environment — family, vacations, adventure, faith?
  5. What are a couple of the most defining events from your personal narrative — both good and challenging — that have defined who you are and you behave today?
  6. How do you take care of yourself?
  7. How do you like to be rewarded most — with extra bonus cash, extra vacation time, public recognition, title promotion?
  8. Where would you like to be in 3, 5, and 10 years?
  9. What do you do for fun?

“The power to question is the basis of all human progress.” – Indira Gandhi

Purpose – To Coach People. To Get Them To See And Remove The Roadblocks In Their Way

Whom to Ask – Each Individual In Your Team

Powerful Questions:-

  1. What would success look like?
  2. What would tell you that you’ve reached your goal?
  3. What is holding you back? What is in the way?
  4. What concerns you? What might be the unintended consequences?
  5. What are your options? What else can you try?
  6. Who else needs to be involved? Who can help you?
  7. What is the one step you can take today?
  8. What is your back up plan?

Purpose – To Ask People In Your 1-on-1’s

Whom To Ask – The Person Sitting Next To You

Powerful Questions:-

  1. Tell me something I don’t know about you?
  2. What are you excited about? What are you worried about?
  3. What did you do recently that you are proud of?
  4. When was the last time you laughed at work?
  5. What do you do after work? What are your hobbies?
  6. What in your life is ‘on hold’? Until you lose weight, until you retire, etc. What are you waiting for?
  7. If you were in my position, what would you do differently?

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” – Naguib Mahfouz

What To Do With The Answers?

The above questions can be provocative and open up new pathways for people which weren’t available before. These questions might force people to look at things differently, and they can build on the answers to create a long-lasting impact. The process of asking these questions can be painful at times, but the rewards are significant and worth it.

Powerful Questions lead people to clarity in thought and swiftness in action. These questions are generally open-ended and increase the possibility of new learnings, fresh perspectives, and bold action.

Journalist and author Warren Berger has written two wonderful books on the topic of questioning – The Book of Beautiful Questions and A More Beautiful Question. He argues that one of the most powerful forces for igniting change in business and in our daily lives is a simple, under-appreciated tool – asking deep and imaginative questions with the curiosity of a child.