Asking Good, Big Questions

I love good, big questions. When thoughtfully asked and open-heartedly and open-mindedly received, they evoke deep reflection, deeper than the everyday queries we ask ourselves such as what to have for lunch or when to convene a meeting. My questions tend to emerge during periods of quiet reflection or when I feel a sense of disquiet in my days. They also arise from curiosity and a desire for meaningful conversation, both with others and myself.

Good, big questions interrupt normal trains of thought and open new understandings of familiar feelings. For example, “What is the most important thing to pay attention to right now? Where do my gifts and talents meet the world’s needs? What brings me joy?”

The questions leaders ask themselves and others are especially influential because they communicate what is important, direct people’s attention, and shape an organization’s or a community’s culture. Questions have a power that is beyond the answers. For example, questions such as “What is the fundamental purpose of this organization?” Or, “What would I/we do differently if I/we could recreate the organization with a blank slate?” Or, “Can we see this situation differently or from the vantage points of others? How might our customers see it? How might our grandparents or grandchildren see it?”

Such questions broaden and deepen people’s thinking about what they are trying to accomplish and invite them to consider the situation and the organization or community with fresh eyes.

When people consider deeper questions in concert, they create stronger, even more intimate relationships and trust. The questions we ask set the stage for what we pay attention to and do next. As Peter Block claims in The Answer to How is Yes, “Getting the question right may be the most important thing we can do. We define our dialogue and, in a sense, our future through the questions we choose to address.”

However, because the brain loves certainty, it is hard to ask good, big questions and not rush to answer them, surrendering a good, big question for a quick, small answer. It is very tempting to give answers before truly knowing or living into the question over time. The great Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke entreats us in Letters to a Young Poet “…to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Live the questions now.”

In preparing to write another book Dawna Markova, a dear friend and colleague asked me, along with many others in her circle, what questions I am asking myself at this time in my life. As a teacher, writer, consultant and facilitator about to enter another decade of life, here are three of the several questions I am pondering:

  • What are the most important gifts I want to give to my community now?
  • How can I be calm and clear enough to know what is needed in any situation?
  • How to live in the silence from which words come?

As we begin to approach the end of the year, I wonder what questions you want to ask yourself personally and what questions you want to ask yourself as a leader, regardless of whether you are in a formal leadership position. We all lead in every situation in which we live. Here are three to start you off:

  • What unique value can you add in your role at work or in your family?
  • What legacy do you want to leave the organization where you work or the community where you live?
  • What questions should you be asking yourself? Your colleagues? Your organization or community?

Invite yourself, and those you are asking, to “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer” (Rainer Maria Rilke).

Mary’s award-winning book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is available.  Click here to purchase it.

1 thought on “Asking Good, Big Questions”

  1. Great piece. Thank you! As part of my facilitation skills training, I include a component on the art of asking powerful questions – such a vital skill for facilitators. I especially liked this part of your article: “Getting the question right may be the most important thing we can do. We define our dialogue and, in a sense, our future through the questions …”

    I also recommend the book, Wait, WHAT????!!! and Life’s Other Essential Questions by James E. Ryan. It was the topic of one of my recent Communiques –

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