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The Power of the "Right" Question - by Jan Pedersen

The Power of the "Right" Question - by Jan Pedersen

The best way to illustrate the power of the right questions is to look at the wrong questions first.

Let's say that you, as a manager or supervisor, discover that somebody made a mistake that costs your department $20,000.

"Why didn't you follow the procedure? How could you let this happen? Why did you decide this on your own, without checking with me? Do you think the procedure manual was written for everybody but you?" These questions might be right there, ready to fall out your mouth, because you're frustrated, surprised or angry.

What results could you expect from questions like these?

Or, as a parent, you find out that your teenager was caught at a party you had forbidden them to attend.

"Why did you decide to go, when I expressly told you not to? What were you thinking? Did you think I wouldn't find out?" Again, out of frustration, hurt, or anger these questions will be there, waiting.

If you've ever asked questions like these, what usually happens?

Or, you've decided not to argue any more with your partner. But right there in the midst of a conversation, you find yourself arguing every little point. You ask yourself, "Why did I do that? What was I thinking?"

Did you ever get an answer that inspired you?

The questions that are automatically generated by the fear, frustration, anger, disappointment, hurt or surprise are almost always geared to "get even" with the supposed perpetrator of those emotions--the other person. Those automatic "make-wrong" questions will guarantee you escalating arguments, higher blood pressure, damaged relationships, and postponed results.

Now, in the moment, making the other person wrong just might be your primary intent. But the whole purpose of "Intentional Communication" is to be aware of ALL of your intentions...both short- and long-range. In the situations above, what are some of those long-range intentions?

If you are like most people, you have an intent to get along with the other person. You have an intent to solve the problem at hand. You have an intent to learn and grow from mistakes, and you have an intent that the other person learn and grow from mistakes, too. You have an intent that the relationship works...that you trust one another. You have an intent to get your needs met, and you have an intent to help the other person get their needs met. In some cases, you have an intent to verify or demonstrate a particular role -- i.e., boss or parent.

Any question that you can ask that stimulates, inspires and provokes creativity, insight, learning or problem-solving is a "powerful question." A powerful question is usually the right kind of question to ask when you're not getting the results you want. A powerful question puts an end to games, manipulation, punishment and make-wrong. A powerful question is sometimes hard to ask, and even harder to answer.

Let me give you some possibilities, for the examples above:

For the manager:

"What do you think you can do to solve this problem?"
"How do you see this mistake helping others in the department?"
"What prevented you from following the procedure manual?"
"If you had it to do over, what would you do differently?"

For the parent:

"What did going to that party get you?"
"Is there something I should be aware of that prevented you from following my instructions?"
"If you knew how to say no to your friends, how would you say it next time?"
"When did you decide I didn't mean 'no?'"

For the self:

"What do I want right now?
"Is saying this getting me closer to what I want?"
"Is what I'm doing working?"
"If I knew how to stop arguing with my partner, what would I say next?"

Notice that these kinds of questions do not start with "WHY." They start with what, how, when. They demand thought, recall, introspection. They do not feed defensiveness.

When asking powerful questions, it is imperative to key in to your long-range intentions for the relationship, and keep a neutral, quiet and curious mental and physical posture.

And it's important, when asking powerful questions, to wait for the answer! It just might surprise you.


Speaker, trainer and author Jan Pedersen offers keynote speeches, training seminars and workshops to organizations who want to improve interpersonal effectiveness, reduce or eliminate conflict and increase results. Visit her website or subscribe to the twice-monthly newsletter "Communication Insights" by emailing


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