Career Success Through Powerful Questions

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Questions are the tools of the trade for life coaches. We revel in our clients saying to us, “That’s a really good question!” A statement usually evoked by a simple, yet profound question such as, “What do you want?”

When someone asks a question, others are compelled to answer it. At the same time, questions stimulate thinking in both the person asking the question and the person answering the question.

According to Dorothy Leeds, author of The 7 Powers of Questions: Secrets to Successful Communication in Life and at Work, questions are the most overlooked tool in the art of persuasion. She suggests that questions get people to open up and lead to quality listening.

Ms. Leeds believes that questions put the questioner in control – one of the seven powers of questions she proposes. She asserts that we don’t ask enough questions because we are often afraid to question authority. Yet our need to ask questions is often greatest at times when we feel most vulnerable – when we are in the presence of a doctor or lawyer whom we assume may know more than we know, when we don’t know enough to make an informed decision or when we are in trouble or being victimized.

Recently, a client of mine received an email from her company informing her that she was in jeopardy of losing her educational stipend as a result of leaving the company for a new job before the requisite time period for reimbursements had elapsed. She was upset about this turn of events because it appeared to be one more issue among many that was thrown in her path that seemed to slow down her exit from the company to her new job.

Fortunately we had an opportunity to coach before she met with her manager to deal with the stipend issue. Questioning her, I found that this incident evoked a feeling of helplessness in her that reminded her of a time many years ago in high school when her mother prevented her from applying to a private school she had wanted to attend. Untangling this old feeling from this new incident enabled my client to reconnect with her own power.

Instead of entering the meeting with her manager with an angry demeanor caused by what might have been misconstrued as a chip on her shoulder, but really was a feeling of powerlessness from the earlier time in her life, this young woman was able to ask effective questions that led to a reversal of the decision and an opportunity to consult with her old company while she took on her assignments at her new organization. She discovered that her power in this situation came from asking questions in a climate of mutual respect and genuine curiosity.

My client also discovered that asking questions rather than complaining about the situation put her in control in the meeting. Her questions put her on an equal footing with her manager – he needed to think and consider what she posed to him. She asked him how they might reconcile the situation so that they could both have what they wanted – he and his company wanted more of her expertise. When she was able to grasp what he was really after, they were both able to come to agreement about how he could have what he wanted.

Another time I have found it important for people to ask questions is during job interviews. Often people get themselves into situations where all they are doing is responding to an interviewer’s barrage of questions without responding with questions of their own during the interview. Waiting to ask questions until the end of the interview when an interviewer poses, “Do you have any questions for me?” creates a one-down position and is not much like natural conversation.

I encourage my job interviewing clients to get into a habit of answering a question and then tacking a question of their own at the end of their answer. For example, “How is what I told you related to what you are looking for in a candidate?”

In order to be effective, questions must open people up rather than shut them down. We are all familiar with questions that put us on the defensive – “Why didn’t you get that report in on time?” “Where did you get your driver’s license?” Questions tinged with judgment are generally slated for cutting off conversation rather than encouraging it.

Alternatively, questions asked out of genuine curiosity with no hidden agendas are apt to put the respondent at ease and lead to greater rapport and increased dialogue.

Another excellent book that will help you on this quest of asking powerful questions – this time of yourself, rather than others - is by Debbie Ford, The Right Questions: Ten Essential Questions to Guide You to an Extraordinary Life. Ford believes that our lives are not as optimum as they could be because we are often acting on autopilot, unconsciously making choices that have negative impact on our lives. Her questions are posed around choices, such as: “Will this choice bring me long-term fulfillment or will it bring me short-term gratification?” “Will this choice add to my life force or will it rob me of my energy?” “Am I looking for what’s right or am I looking for what’s wrong?”

Asking effective questions, no matter what the occasion takes a lot of practice. It is good to practice asking questions in low stress situations with minimal negative implications. It is also helpful to become more aware of the questions that are posed of you. What are the ones that evoke your thinking? What are the questions that engage you in dialogue? What are the questions that put you off?

Spend some time exploring the issue of questions, both in concert with others as well as going inside to explore for yourself as you make your own choices more conscious. As you do so, you will find you’ll have a unique response to the age old question, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” Among other things you can report that you became an expert in posing powerful questions – of yourself and others.

Melanie Keveles MA, CPCC, Certified Professional Life Coach. She’s a “dream champion, ” working with people who want to change career direction, start a business or publish a book. She’s available via e-mail at, by phone at 715-394-4260, or and offers complimentary sessions.


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