The Power of Authentic Questions


“Why do you weep when you pray?” he asked me, as though he had known me a long time.

“I don’t know why,” I answered, greatly disturbed. The question had never entered my head.  I wept because—because of something inside me that felt the need for tears.  That was all I knew.

“Why do you pray?” he asked me, after a moment.

Why did I pray?  A strange question.  Why did I live?  Why did I breathe?

“I don’t know why,” I said, even more disturbed and ill at ease.  “I don’t know why.”

After that day I saw him often.  He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.

– from Elie Wiesel‘s Night

Questions are among the most powerful levers a leader has. However, all questions are not created equal. Some disguise their true intent. Others are rhetorical. Still others are manipulative. And mixed throughout you’ll find the most dangerous and powerful questions of all: the authentic ones.

What kind of questions do you ask? Are they…

  • Counterfeit Questions? These questions aren’t really seeking the information they ask for. For example: “Honey, do you want to change Sally’s diaper?” Everyone involved knows the real answer to that question. The real question is: “Honey, would you please change Sally’s diaper?”
  • Leading Questions? These questions try to drive another person toward a predetermined solution. At their best, these questions are effective in teaching; they help others discover facts for themselves. At their worst, they turn manipulative and shut down creativity.
  • Authentic Questions? The most powerful of all questions, these are questions where the inquirer genuinely has no idea what the answer is. In fact, the question may have multiple right answers, no right answers, or no answers at all. Most leaders avoid authentic questions because they either believe they must have all the answers or they’re afraid of losing control.

Counterfeit questions breed frustration and encourage passive–aggressive behavior. Leading questions can seed doubt and erode trust. Authentic questions, however, generate authentic leadership.

Asking authentic questions is tough. It takes vulnerability, trust, and confidence. It takes the courage to say, “I don’t know.” But, once you see the world of opportunities, relationships and ideas they open up, you’ll never turn back.

Who in your life asks you authentic questions? How have you seen leaders leverage questions?

18 thoughts on “The Power of Authentic Questions”

  1. I really enjoyed this post Geoff. This is a very valuable insight. I especially liked your selection for an introductory passage, which set a nice context and tone. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’m not sure I completely agree. Authentic questions are what we should strive for but on occasion leading questions have power also. It is far better to say ‘what do you see wrong here?’ than just point out a problem and provide a solution. Being a leader requires discipline to help people arrive at conclusions for themselves, even when you know the answer.

    1. James! Thanks for stopping by—and for not completely agreeing. God knows we need more of that on this site!

      I’m with you 100%. I think I may have covered this point too quickly in my enthusiasm to get on to authentic questions.

      When I wrote, “At their best, these questions are effective in teaching; they help others discover facts for themselves” I was trying to convey the exact point that you elucidated in your comment. Cheers.

      When we help others arrive at conclusions for themselves, they truly own what they’ve learned!

  3. Like this article, Geoff!

    Can i add another kind of questions? I’d probably call it deflective questions.. These are questions that are asked in order to avoid answering a question…

    1. Good one! This is the question of choice for amateur facilitators who don’t really know what’s going on or what they want to achieve. They just turn questions back at the asker hoping they’ll seem like Socrates.

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