At work and in life, you ask and answer questions every single day. Have you ever stopped to consider how the questions you’re asking might impact the outcomes you’re getting? Asking better questions—what we call “empowering questions”—can enhance information flow, empower people to arrive at their own solutions, and create more meaningful conversations. Explore that idea further in this post.
What are empowering questions?
Empowering questions are those that cause a person to search for answers or new possibilities. They aim to:
- Create deeper understanding, insight, and connection
- Assume people have the answers within themselves (meaning, as the asker, we can help them uncover the answer on their own)
- Help us go deeper, beyond the shallow issues or responses in a conversation
Our goal when using empowering questions is to shift the focus from us doing our best thinking to getting others to do their best thinking. Why does this matter?
It helps people gain more agency in their work, clarify what they’re thinking and feeling, and hold deeper conversations that lead to stronger team collaboration and better results.
The difference between empowering and non-empowering questions
Imagine this scenario:
You’re managing a team of three employees working on a large project with a looming deadline. The pressure is tangible; the client is new, and they’ve invested a lot of trust, time, and resources in your company. As deadlines approach, the mood in your office is productive but tense.
Late in the project, one of the team members “cuts corners,” making a critical mistake and causing a ripple effect. You need to find the root of the problem so you can get everyone back on track. How do you respond?
In the scenario above, let’s see what could happen if you didn’t use empowering questions.
You put production on hold to have a team meeting with your employees. You ask them directly who was responsible for the mistake and why they did it. They don’t answer for a few moments, so you fill the void by reminding them how important the client is and telling them that mistakes like these simply can’t happen—the stakes are too high, and the deadline is already too close. Do they really want to deliver a sub-par product?
Your team finally starts to respond. Each has their own opinion about where the mistake originated. They shift the blame around and avoid accountability. You tell them, sternly, to “just fix the problem,” return to work, and don’t make any more mistakes. Your team siloes themselves and fights back feelings of resentment and stress to complete their own responsibilities. The project isn’t nearly as polished as you’d like for it to be when presenting to the client.
Two key words stand out in this situation: “who” and “why.” When we start questions this way (“who was responsible?” and “why did it happen?”), the other person becomes defensive. They feel the need to self-protect rather than problem solve.
Likewise, filling the void after posing a question leaves room for more confusion and more stress. It can feel uncomfortable when we expect a response and don’t receive one—especially in a stressful situation—so we tend to layer the original question with additional thoughts, stack questions on top of each other, and heighten feelings of pressure. These tactics did not bode well for anyone.
Now, let’s consider what could happen if you use empowering questions instead.
You put production on hold to have a team meeting with your employees. You tell them that you’ve noticed a series of errors, and you’d like to have one-on-one conversations with each to consider how everyone can remedy the problem and avoid it in the future.
Meeting independently with each team member, you ask the following questions, leaving time after each for your employee to think through their response before speaking: What part of the process tripped you up? How effective is the communication between you and the rest of the team? What tools or information do you need to correct the mistake and return to a productive workflow? How can I help you avoid this problem going forward?
After these conversations, your team returns to the project having talked through solutions. They refine their communication strategies to keep each other updated, and they work together to resolve the original mistake. You may have lost production time, but you’ve avoided further delays and mistakes in the project, and you haven’t compromised quality in delivering to the client.
Two key words stand out in this situation: “what” and “how.” Empowering questions begin with these because they prompt open-ended responses. Following them up with silence keeps the question clear and makes room for productive, healthy conversation. They also alleviate the need for you to solve the problem on the other’s behalf. They have the opportunity to think critically and create a solution themselves.
Empowering questions create a culture of collaboration
The difference in outcomes between the two examples is unmissable. In the first scenario, the supervisor was seeking blame, not communicating clearly, and warning them that future mistakes can’t happen—leading to shame, silos, and fear.
In the latter, the supervisor used empowering questions, leading to problem solving, process improvements, and trust.
We show you how to use empowering questions—and other essential communication tools—in our Leading Powerful Conversations workshop. This service is founded on the belief that communication is the key to all your relationships. You’ll learn how to lead conversations that help others feel seen, heard, and valued, and how you can ground your leadership in empowering conversations.
See when we’re holding our next Leading Powerful Conversations workshop, and make a plan to join us!