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Christopher Holden

Choose to cultivate a curious attitude. Great questions frame and provoke, opening us to new pathways. Many successful methods have questions at their core, such as: "What's at the heart of the matter?" and "If you were czar, what would you do?" So what's the most powerful question we could ask right now?


Questions lead us to something new or unknown. Change begins to happen the moment a question is asked. Questions can direct the flow, and they can also obstruct or impede the flow. And questions can provoke. Questions can open to a new way of thinking and close (sometimes a constructive negative question is used to close... e.g. "Is there anyone who doesn't agree?")

A central question can be the organizing principle for a whole dialogue, a whole event, a whole change process.

Why do questions have such power? It's the cognitive piece, the opening - pulling the cognitive tension out. It says: I'm curious, I don't know, I'm engaged. We're wired this way; we want to know why, what it means to us. With a great question, we appreciate at once the purpose, the importance and the challenge of what we are working on together.

A question is a more inclusive holder than a statement. Every question is, in essence, an invitation. It prompts learning, including deeper self-awareness. Potentially it can guide us to our blind spots, particularly if asked respectfully, Socratically, lovingly.

A good question is generous, rather than ego-seeking; inclusive rather than exclusive; opening rather than closing. Questions are by nature ambiguous, which can be troublesome to some people, but which is part of what opens up new avenues of exploration.

The facilitator can be the initiator of questions, or can be called upon to entertain and hold open a question for group consideration, or can be asked to respond to questions.

A well-considered question can frame, bound, direct and inform any part of a group process. From the facilitator, it is an invitation to explore and a challenge to respond, but only after consideration, thought, and conversation. Facilitators develop intuition about when is the right or perfect moment for a question.

A facilitator can ask a question to the group, or to small pairs/triads/quads to raise the energy, to go deeper, to ensure all voices are heard.

An important question from a participant can provide impetus, can provoke, can jolt other participants into new ways of thinking, or can change the direction of the discussion and process. The facilitator needs to field such questions, and, when they are useful and intended for the deliberation of the whole group, re-present them to the group, and hold space for their engagement.

The ability of the facilitator to appropriately and effectively respond to questions from the group to him or her specifically is critical, and takes skill and practice, especially in the case of apparently critical or disruptive or challenging or non sequitur questions. How to respond? How to respect? How to honour the group and the individual (acknowledge, redirect, "parking lot") appropriately?

Living into the mystery, the not knowing. Being humble and open.

There are many categories or types of questions:

  • A seemingly innocent question: "I may be missing something, but...."
  • Naïve questions
  • Obstructive questions
  • Clarifying questions
  • Information-gathering questions: "How have other groups handled such situations?" (perhaps asked of an Experts on Tap)
  • Confirming/summative questions: "Are you saying..." (reflective, paraphrased)
  • Convening questions: "What is your passion for being here today?"
  • Concrete questions: "What time is lunch?"
  • Asking why five times - drilling down to root cause
  • Asking why is that important? And why is THAT important? And why is THAT important? Etc.
  • Spirit quest... Wait for an animal to show up, ask it a question, wait
  • Closed vs. open-ended questions: Open and closed ended questions have different purposes, and it's important to differentiate and select the right type of question for the circumstances

A "great" question is not necessarily clever, but rather touches on what holds and invites the group, and is appreciative in the way of adding value.

Sometimes a non-question (grammatically) is really a disguised question e.g. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." --John Kennedy

Cautions and Caveats: Questions that are barbed or manipulative e.g.:

  • What is NOT a question, such as a rhetorical question
  • Questions that REQUIRE either a yes or a no
  • Questions that are leading to a particular answer, which are particularly dangerous on the part of the facilitator (can be manipulative) e.g. "You're going to do that aren't you?"
  • Negative questions: "You would never do that, would you?" (Includes a judgement.)
  • Double negative questions which can be misleading, confusing: "Is this not the wrong way to go?" "You haven't finished with that yet, have you?"
  • Questions that employ or embody power politics: a question with an implied "correct" answer is a means of coercion

Novice question: How do we get there?
Mentor question: How do you think you might get there, if you are ten times braver than you're feeling right now?


"The Power of Questions", Tom Atlee (Co-Intelligence Institute)
Peter Block questions (at Nancy White's blog)
Peter Block: "The Answer to How is Yes"
Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider, Witney, etc.)
Open Space Technology, Harrison Owen
The Power of Questions, Tony Robbins
The Fifth Discipline - 5 whys, Peter Senge
The Socratic Method

"The Questions that Will Save Your Relationships" by Glennon Melton