Harnessing the Power of Questions

Sometimes we ignore the vast power that lies at our disposal. Questions are an example of an often neglected power. When was the last time you consciously asked questions to increase your power? How often have you thought about the power locked into questions? Questions are loaded with power that is released when we ask them, for they reveal knowledge, truth, wisdom, solutions. They can lead to discovery, enchantment, and joy. They give birth to all of humanity’s inventions and creations. And it is questions that provide the key to unleashing our unlimited potential.

However, our inherited ability to raise questions hasn’t come entirely free. There is a price to pay. That price is the discovery that we are mortal. In her book, The Magic Years, Selma Fraiberg explains:

“An Animal that knows who it is, one that has a sense of his own identity, is a discontented creature, doomed to create new problems for himself for the duration of his stay on this planet. Since neither the mouse nor the chimp knows what is, he is spared all the vexing problems that follow this discovery.  But as soon as the human animal who asked himself this question emerged, he plunged himself and his descendants into an eternity of doubt and brooding, speculation and truth-seeking that has goaded him through the centuries as relentlessly as hunger or sexual longing.  The chimp that does not know that he exists is not driven to discover his origins and is spared the tragic necessity of contemplating his own end.  And even if the animal experimenters succeed in teaching a chimp to count one hundred bananas or to play chess, the chimp will develop no science and he will exhibit no appreciation of beauty, for the greatest part of man’s wisdom may be traced back to the eternal questions of beginnings and endings, the quest to give meaning to his existence, to life itself.”

Yes, there is a price to pay for the gift of questioning, but it includes its own rewards. For example, the discovery that we are mortal makes life precious, gives us incentive to act while we still have time, and forces us to consider living courageously and heroically.

Why is the gift of questioning so valuable? The first reason that comes to mind is the discoveries that it leads to. As an example, American theoretical physicist and professor at Columbia University, Brian Greene has this to say:

“. we begin life as uninhibited explorers with a boundless  fascination for the ever growing world to which we have access. And what I find amazing is that if that fascination is fed, and  if it’s challenged, and if it’s nurtured, it can grow to an  intellect capable of grappling with such marvels as the quantum  nature of reality, the energy locked inside the atom, the curved  spacetime of the cosmos, the elementary constituents of matter,  the genetic code underlying life, the neural circuitry  responsible for consciousness, and perhaps even the very origin  of the universe. While we evolved to survive, once we have the  luxury of taking such survival for granted, the ability of our  species to unravel mysteries grand and deep is awe-inspiring.”


1. Release the power of your imagination and creativity with “how ~ if” and “what if” questions.That is, ask yourself questions like, “HOW would my life change IF I were to do things differently? WHAT IF I were to quit my job and start my own business? HOW would my life change IF I were to apply everything I learn in the self-help book I am reading?”

2. Use these four ways to change your negative feelings to positive ones:

a) When you are feeling down, there is no law that says you have to stay that way. To feel more upbeat, all you have to do is ask yourself questions such as, “What am I excited about? What am I looking forward to? What am I thankful for? What can I do to feel better?” The answers to these questions will lift your spirits and allow you to get back to whatever needs to be done.

b) Here’s a 4-step formula that you may find helpful.

i) Ask yourself, “Will the pain (disappointment, broken heart, sorrow) that I feel now last forever?”

ii) The answer to this question (No) should give you a sense of relief. Allow yourself to feel that relief.

iii) Ask yourself, “Am I feeling better now?” The answer should be yes. Allow yourself to bask in feeling better.

iv) Ask yourself, “Am I ready to return to whatever needs to be done?” The answer should be yes, so immediately get back to work.

c) Here’s another useful 4-step formula to change a negative emotion to a positive one. Questions and example answers follow.

i) How do I feel? (Frustrated because my friend won’t go out with me.)

ii) How do I want to feel? (I want to feel better.)

iii) How do I CHOOSE to feel? (I choose to feel better.)

iv) What can I do to feel better? (I’ll go out with another friend.)

d) Sometimes you may not know what to do about a vague negative feeling. For instance, you may feel bored but not clearly understand why. To gain clarity and the ability to act, ask yourself a series of questions. Here’s an example:

Q: How do I feel now?
A: Bored.
Q: If I weren’t bored, how would things be different?
A: I would have plenty of things to do.
Q: What kind of things?
A: I would have people to see and places to go.
Q: Who can I see or where can I go now? (The answer will end the boredom.)

3. Strengthen relationships. In most conversations, instead of intently listening to the speaker, the other parties think about what they wish to say next. To strengthen your relationships, practice empathetic listening. That is, carefully listen to what is being said and ask questions to clarify and verify your understanding of what was being said. Your questions will provide you with the answers you want and show your friends that you are interested in what they have to say, thereby making your relationship stronger

4. To increase your understanding of the subject being discussed, ask the 5 W’s (What? Where? Who? When? Why? Also ask, “How?”)

5. Self-discovery. Ask questions such as “Who or what am I? Am I a part of the universe and is the universe a part of me? What is the difference between what I am and what I wish to become?” Some people ask themselves what their life purpose is and then become stuck, unable to answer the question. To prevent this from happening, stop searching for a purpose and simply choose one. In other words, don’t ask “What is my life purpose?”, but ask “What do I choose to dedicate my life to?”

6. Self-empowerment. Ask questions such as, “What do I want? What is preventing me from getting what I want? How will I overcome the roadblocks? When will I start? Other questions include, “Where is my life heading? Am I happy about that? If not, what can I do to turn my life around?”

Don’t ask dead-end questions that get you nowhere. Here’s an example of a dead-end question: “Why do I have such bad luck?” Such a question makes you a powerless victim. Rather, ask yourself, “What have I been doing wrong and how can I correct it? What can I learn from my mistakes and the successes of others?” After you arrive at helpful answers, ask one more question: “What else can I do to make the situation even better?”

7. End the resistance that is holding you back. All too often we have thoughts like, “I should ~, I have to ~, I must ~, I’ve got to ~, I need to ~, and I ought to ~.” These opening phrases imply that what you want to do is tedious, unpleasant, and overwhelming, which causes resistance. Don’t ask “What do I HAVE TO do next?” Rather, ask, “What do I WANT TO do next and why?” An example follows.

WRONG: “I HAVE TO clean the apartment today because mom is visiting tomorrow.”

RIGHT: I WANT TO clean the apartment today because mom is visiting tomorrow and I want her to feel comfortable.”

8. Reframe problems; that is, look at them in a positive light.
Examples follow.

WRONG: “How will this problem inconvenience me? How long can I postpone working on it?”

RIGHT: “What opportunities are hidden in this problem? What can I learn from it? How will it make me stronger?”

9. To break bad habits, ask yourself, “What needs is this bad habit filling and how can I get those needs met by a good habit?”
An example follows.

Q: “What need is cigarette smoking filling?”

A: “I have a stressful job and cigarette breaks provide brief periods that allow me to stop thinking about work and take a `relaxation break.'”

Q: “How can you take a healthy `relaxation break’?”

A: “I can drink tea or water instead of smoking.”

Q: “What is your plan?”

A: “I will go to a Stop Smoking Clinic to end my tobacco addiction and drink herbal tea or water in place of smoking.”

10. Learning to step out of your comfort zone. Use these or similar questions to help you grow by stepping out of your comfort zone: “What am I afraid of? What is the worse that can happen? What is the likelihood of that happening? What are the benefits of acting despite my fear? What are the consequences of not acting? What would I do if I were not afraid (use this same question for anything else that is holding you back, and after answering the question, create a plan and carry it out).

11. Building confidence. Most of us are acutely aware of our weaknesses, but seldom think about our strengths. To reverse this tendency and build confidence, ask questions such as, “What are my talents? What have I accomplished? What do people praise me about? What am I proud of? What do I expect to achieve in the future?

1. To grow in wisdom, don’t ask, “Why don’t they understand me?” Rather, ask “Why don’t I understand them?”

2. Remember that there is no such thing as a foolish question. However, there are foolish people (they are the ones who are afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to appear ignorant).

3. If you are a manager or leader, it is more important to know how to ask the right questions than to have all the answers. For the role of a leader is to create more leaders, and you do this by asking your subordinates questions that force them to think for themselves. When they come to you with problems, ask them questions that will guide them to arriving at the solution themselves.

4. Be suspicious of those who act as though they have the answers to ALL questions. Instead of being very knowledgeable, they may be merely afraid of admitting they don’t know.

5. Avoid closed questions (questions that get a simple Yes or No
response) and stick with open-ended questions (questions that require elaboration). Examples follow.

Q: Do you have a car?
A: Yes.
Note: Very little information was obtained.

Q: If you have a car, tell me about it.
A: Well, I have a 2007 metallic blue Honda Civic DX-G.
Note: More information received (age, color, brand, and model).
This additional information may also provide clues to the economic status of the owner and whether they are conservative or flashy.

6. If you don’t want to receive a truthful answer, don’t ask the question. For example, Bob asked Betty what she thought about his poetry. When she replied that she didn’t like it, Bob was miffed.
So, Bob’s question was not powerful. Instead of bringing them closer together, it drew them further apart.

7. Don’t bother answering nasty questions and don’t ask questions to people who give nasty answers.

8. Ask the same question several times to dig down to the core issue. Here’s an example.

Q: Why do I procrastinate?
A: Because I want to avoid discomfort.
Q: Why do I want to avoid discomfort?
A: Because I lack self-discipline.
Q: Why do I lack self-discipline?
A: Because I don’t know how to cultivate it.
Q: Why don’t I know how to cultivate it?
A: Because I haven’t researched the subject.

Conclusion: Researching the subject of self-discipline and learning how to cultivate it will help me end procrastination, something that was not immediately obvious after the first question.

9. The nature of the question determines the nature of the response. Positive, powerful, and profound questions elicit positive, powerful, and profound answers, and vice versa.

1. Create your own “Book of Questions,” and in it make a list of 50 questions on subjects that interest you. Writing the questions down, carrying the book with you, and referring to the questions from time to time will keep them in the forefront of your mind and help you find their answers. As you answer the questions, check them off and add new questions so you always have 50 questions to contemplate.

2. Start off each day with a series of positive questions that will lift your mood and prepare you for a successful day. Ask questions such as the following.

What am I looking forward to?
What am I excited about?
What am I grateful for?
What am I happy about?
What am I proud of?
What exciting challenges will I be facing today?

3. End each day with a series of questions that will keep you focused on what’s important and help you monitor your progress.
Ask questions such as the following.

What have I learned today?
What have I done today that I couldn’t do yesterday?
What have I learned from my mistakes?
What have I achieved today?
How have I contributed to life today?
Am I on the right track or am I straying from my goals?

4. Every time you learn something new, ask yourself how you can implement it in your life, and use your answer as the basis for a self-improvement plan.

5. Imagine being told by a doctor that you have six months to live. What would you do differently? How would your priorities change? Use your answers to make changes in your life now.

The Book of Questions by Gregory Stock Ph.D., Workman Publishing Company, 1987

The Complete Book of Questions: 1001 Conversation Starters for Any Occasion by Garry Poole, Zondervan, 2003.

If… (Questions For The Game of Life) by Evelyn McFarlane and James Saywell,

For brainstorming and problem solving questions, visit: