What makes ‘what questions’ so powerful?

“What did you do last week, that you really wanted to do, for yourself?” This is a question my coach asked me about 15 years ago. I could not come up with an answer. She then said okay. Let’s try another one. “What would you do next week, if there was one thing you really wanted to do, for yourself?” That answer was easy. I said… “I want to play tennis”. And so, it began. Thanks to her and that question, I was back on the court. Starting slow, with a weekend game and then as I got into the zone, I was playing 5 days a week. The power of the ‘WHAT question’ is evident from this little story. It brought me so many hours of happiness.

Asking a ‘Why question’ on the other hand puts a spotlight on my limiting beliefs; for example – I was feeling bad about the way a particular conversation went in a group setting “Why did I not speak up and say something ?” I asked myself, as I reflected on the encounter. Answer “I don’t like conflict and I was trying to keep the peace…”. Useful no doubt to know this about myself but not helpful to make me feel any better or do better.

Now the ‘what question’ “what could you have done differently Nikhil? Answer. “I could have found an opportunity to share how I felt one-on-one with the person… in fact, it is still not too late. I am going to do just that.” The what question got me to do something that needed to be done. The ‘why’ explains the reason, it often does not catalyse action. While I am a big believer in the power of insights they don’t get you very far if you do not act on them. 

‘What questions’ help me to see my potential. I get enthusiastic when options open up and I find the clarity and courage to move forward. ‘Why questions’ often bring into focus difficult to deal with emotions; “Why did you get so angry? Answer “It bugs me when she tells me what to do…I like to do things at my pace and my way…” The same situation viewed through the lens of a ‘what question’ – “what options do you have when she tells you what to do?” This triggers a more open, solution-oriented response. My curiosity is piqued. “Yeah. What can I do?” And a plethora of ideas come forth. Moving me forward, away from my emotions that get me all tangled up, guiding me into motion, that I can control.

So, there you have it. If you stay in the zone of ‘Why questions’ they can often hold you hostage and trigger you to keep looking into the rear-view mirror. On the other hand, if you quickly move into the ‘what questions’ they keep your eyes on the road ahead and the journey forward. 

The Why matters because clarity of purpose, objective, and goals must be explored. To that extent, it is an anchor question that reveals much about what is going on around us. But after getting that clarity, what questions rule supreme. They make me look inwards and understand myself. This self-awareness is a powerful catalyst for growth. It takes me back to my first week of studying to become a coach. Peter J Reding from the Coach for Life program gave us this simple tool. He told us to stick with ‘what’ questions and focus on the positive. The possibilities emerge. Ask yourself “What would make today a good day?” And whatever the answer is make it happen.

The power is in the WHAT. What have I learnt? So, what? Now what?

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Nikhil Dey
Nikhil Dey is Executive Director, Adfactors PR.

A trusted coaching and communications professional, Nikhil Dey is a certified life and leadership coach (International Coach Federation - ICF). Nurturing talent and helping clients achieve their goals is what makes him happy. He loves learning from students of communication, teaching courses and guest lecturing at various educational institutions. When he is not working you will find him on the tennis court or out for long walks with his family and four legged friends.

Previously he has held senior leadership positions at Weber Shandwick and Genesis BCW.

He can be reached on twitter @deydreaming

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