Use powerful questions to build commitment

question marks“Powerful questions are those that, in the answering, evoke a choice for accountability and commitment.” – Peter Block

If you’ve followed our blog for any length of time, you’ll note that we’ve devoted more than a few posts to the leader’s role in asking good questions. In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block aptly discusses how questions are central to building accountability and commitment in any change effort. He describes powerful questions as the essential tools of engagement, because they create space for something new to emerge. They engage people and invite them to co-create a future possibility.  Most importantly, powerful questions have the capacity to transform organizations.

But how do we as leaders recognize or craft powerful questions? Block helps us by distinguishing between questions with little power to create an alternative future and those questions with great power to make a difference.

Questions with little power are those that you may have heard many times or that you may have asked in the past, but they have little power to transform an organization. They include questions, like:

  • How do we get to people to show up and be committed?
  • How do we get others to buy in to our vision?
  • How do we get those people to change?
  • How much will it cost and where do we get the money?
  • How do we negotiate for something better?
  • How do we find and develop better leaders?

Block says that questions that are designed to change other people are the wrong questions, because they reinforce a problem-solving model that will create a predictable future. Questions with little power focus on negotiating, mandating, engineering, controlling, or just trying harder at what we’ve already been doing.

Powerful questions, on the other hand, take the focus off of problem solving and open up thinking and discussion for a different future. Block states that there are three important characteristics of powerful question. They should be 1) ambiguous (not precisely defined), 2) personal, and 3) should evoke anxiety. Yes, he did say, anxiety! He explains that all that matters makes us anxious….hmmm. Here are some powerful questions that Block proposes:

  • What is the commitment you hold that brought you into this room?
  • What is the price you or others pay for being here today?
  • How valuable do you plan for this effort to be?
  • What is the crossroads you face at this stage of the game?
  • What is the story you keep telling about the problems of this community?
  • What is your contribution to the very thing you complain about?

Note how different these questions are from the ones we usually ask as leaders.  Imagine how the dialogue would shift when asking questions like this with a group of employees, students, or community members. The act of answering these questions requires personal responses that are not easy, but that build commitment and accountability.

What powerful questions have you used to help people build accountability and commitment for a new future?

Anita Rios



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