The Inexplicable Power of the Humble Question Mark

Question Mark
Photo: Unsplash/emily-morter

It is entirely possible that the most powerful thing in the world is the humble question mark.

Whether written, or spoken, it has the potential to create revolutionary change, turn mice into men and bring dictators to their knees.

How?  (See what I did there!)

By creating a gap.

A powerful, searching, probing gap.  And gaps are important, because they create space.  Space to reflect.  Space to reexamine.  Space to ponder.  Space to acknowledge.  Space to listen.

Let me show you what I mean using five examples from the domain of leadership.

The Internal Question

“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers” ~ Tony Robbins

Question Monologue
Photo: Unsplash/ben-white

Our minds are rich with monologue (and sometimes dialogue – but that’s a topic for another post!) however we don’t always notice it.  We explain events around us, to ourselves.  We legitimise actions we’re about to take, to ourselves.  We play out what might happen next, to ourselves.

And when bad things happen to us, we verbalise our thoughts, feelings and reactions, inside our heads.

Sometimes this is in the form of statements: “gosh, I didn’t expect that”, or “I know what not to do next time”.  Sometimes, though, it takes the form of questions: “why did this happen to me?” or “how did I end up here?”.  Questions like this make you the victim.  They reinforce the idea that something was done to you.

But the very best questions?  They require you to start problem solving.  They spur you to action.  They create a gap between your present gloomy mood and a new space where you can begin to turn your thinking – and your situation – around:

  • “How can I learn from this?”
  • “How can I come back stronger as a result of this temporary set-back?”
  • “What steps, if I took them right now, would prevent this from happening again?”

Recognising your internal monologue is not always easy.  Especially if it’s a persistent chatter – always in your mind.  Chances are you have consciously stopped listening to it… but it’s still there, and your subconscious brain still pays attention.  So you need to practice mindfulness, and get better at recognising when your internal monologue is taking you in an unhelpful direction, and deliberately turn things around through the power of a high quality internal question.

The Rhetorical Question

Rhetorical Question
Screenshot: Google

A rhetorical question is a literary device used to emphasise or illustrate a point.  Simply put, it is a question to which no answer is actually expected.

In order to be effective, a rhetorical question has to be followed by a brief pause – a gap – where the speaker allows the audience (or the writer allows the reader) to contemplate the answer and appreciate the purpose of the question.  What is the realisation that it creates?  What is the ‘a-ha’ moment?  Does it demonstrate a hypocrisy you hold?  Or a flawed belief?

It is the gap that is important here.  It is that gap that requires you to try and answer the question – and then consider what the question and answer mean in context.

The Coaching Question

Coaching Question
Photo: Unsplash/alejandro-escamilla

If you manage staff, or coach others as part of your role, the power of questions cannot be overstated.

It is easy when you are in a position of authority – as a leader, as a coach, as a mentor – to think that this means you need to have all the answers.  But actually, the opposite is true.  If you have great questions, you don’t need any of the answers.

BUT this is really hard.  Your brain loves to answer questions.  It can’t help itself!

When your employee/coachee/mentee asks you a question, your brain immediately leaps to find an answer…  to demonstrate your expertise, to justify your position in the relationship and just to make your feel more confident.  But answering these questions is not helping.

You need to rewire your brain, and learn to respond with a question of your own.  Try:

  • “What do you think?”
  • “How do you feel about that?”
  • “What do you think the options are?”
  • “What is your intuition telling you?”
  • “How could you find out?”

These questions result in two new gaps.  The gap you need to create between the question you’ve been asked and how you respond, and a gap in the mind of the person asking the first question and thinking about answering your question.

Your employee/mentee will gain far more from answering the question themselves than they ever will from being given the answer – even if your answer was brilliant!

The Strategic Question

Both an internal and an external question – but one of the most important question categories…

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it…” ~ Simon Sinek

Strategic Question
Photo: Flickr/Ksayer1


“Why are you in business?”

“Why were you put on this earth?”

There are, of course, subsets of these questions, but until you’ve answer your own ‘why’ the lesser questions will merely be distractions.

Once you’ve created this gap and answered your ‘why’ you can figure out:

  • Where you need to be in five,10, 20 years
  • What you need to do to get there
  • How you’re going to do it

And the answers to these questions are very important, but without identifying your ‘why’ – the answers will probably be wrong.

Questioning Assumptions

Question Assumptions
Photo: Unsplash/Andrew-de-Ville

Possibly the most important thing you can understand about your own brain?  It loves shortcuts.  If it can find a way to streamline your thinking process, it will.  It constantly creates categories and rules to help you understand the world around you.

Some of these rules and categories are incredibly helpful.  Like, “food that is mouldy is probably not good to eat”.

And yet we eat blue cheese, which is mouldy – in a good way.

So we build these mental schemas and rules that mostly help us make sense of the world around us.

But sometimes, these assumptions are unconscious and untested.  We simply aren’t even aware we are making an assumption, let alone whether or not it is accurate.

So one of my favourite questions of all gets right to the heart of these untested unconscious assumptions.

“In order for this to happen like I expect, what must be true?”

You might discover you are assuming another person will do something, so you don’t need to, but your success depends on it being done.

You might discover you are assuming that the current technology trends will continue.

You might discover you are assuming people wearing dirty ripped jeans can’t afford high-end designer clothing.

I guarantee that if you create the gap between what you think you’re about to do – ask yourself this question – and then course-correct, you’ll find opportunities and possibilities that you didn’t imagine possible, because your own mind was closing them off to you.

What are your most powerful questions?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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