Questions can empower or disempower – but how do we know which ones are which?

Posted: 06/04/2023

Have you ever been asked a question that changed your life?

I was. When I was 19 and about to flunk out of uni, I was completely at sea and had no idea what I was going to do. I was miserable and felt completely trapped. I kept asking myself: What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just stick this out?

And the answers I gave myself? You are useless and ungrateful, suck it up and get on with it.  

Needless to say, these answers didn’t help.

Then someone asked me 2 simple questions. What are you naturally drawn to doing in your spare time? Where do you find meaning? In answering these questions honestly, I realised that the things that gave me meaning and energy were all to do with the arts and the study of different cultures, completely unrelated to what I was then studying. So, I swapped courses and I felt much happier.

Looking back, I can see that the kinds of questions I was asking myself were never going to help me move forward. In fact, they just pulled me further into inaction and misery.

Since then, I’ve learned to question the questions I ask myself – are they helpful or do they pull me down?


What types of questions can lead to positive change?

To paraphrase author and speaker, Tony Robbins, the quality of our lives is defined by the number of good quality questions we ask ourselves.

As I discovered, there are good quality questions and poor quality questions.

When we ask ourselves good quality questions, we feel motivated to change. Poor quality questions, however, tend to sap energy and leave us feeling stuck and hopeless.

But how can we tell the difference between the two?


Poor quality questions

As author and resilience trainer, Pinky Jangra, says, ‘Questions lead to answers. Answers generate emotions and drive behaviour. Behaviour determines results.’

When we ask ourselves poor quality questions, we are likely to get unhelpful answers, which will lead to unhelpful behaviours and outcomes.

Poor quality questions tend to be ‘closed’, include negative inherent assumptions and leave us feeling unmotivated to change.

Here are a few examples of poor quality questions:

  • Why can’t I just get over this? (Think about how you might answer this question about a life challenge. It is unlikely to generate new options or possibilities for moving forward.)
  • Why do bad things always happen to me? (This question includes the negative inherent assumption that there has never been a time when good things have happened to you, or when bad things have happened to others. It’s a cognitive error known as catastrophising.)
  • How could they do that to me?
  • What’s wrong with me?
  • Why is everything so unfair?
  • Why am I so unlucky?
  • Who is to blame?

Good quality questions

Good quality questions often have the following characteristics:

  • They are ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’ questions.
  • They lead to answers that are motivating and empowering.
  • They include inherent assumptions about the person’s strengths, skills, capacities, resources and past successes e.g. What strengths did you use to overcome challenges in the past? (This question includes 2 inherent assumptions: 1. They have overcome challenges in the past, and 2. the person has strengths).

Good quality questions should lead to reflection, hopeful options, a clear list of potential actions and a positive pathway forward. They may also lead to more questions – this can be a great outcome too, since poor quality questions tend to close down further exploration.

There are many different types of good quality questions – here are just a few:

  • If I woke up tomorrow and this issue had magically resolved itself overnight, what would be different? What would others notice about me?
  • What have I learned from this experience?
  • How could I see this as an opportunity?
  • What would my family or friends say are my best qualities or strengths?
  • Who can help?
  • What’s one thing I could do today?
  • Who else has done what I want to do? What could I learn from them?
  • How have I dealt with hard things in the past? What worked?
  • What is important to me? What do I value?
  • What am I really good at? How could these skills or qualities help me now?

Empowering people to ask themselves good quality questions

Often when we are feeling disempowered, we ask ourselves poor quality questions.

Asking ourselves these types of questions generates poor quality and unhelpful answers, which ultimately lead us into a negative spiral where we can’t see a way forward.

Equally, the people we work with often ask themselves unhelpful questions. When working with people, it can be helpful to think about the types of questions we are asking them. We need to support them to ask themselves better quality questions.

Supporting and encouraging people—adults and children alike—to ask themselves good quality questions is a great way of enabling them to build a skill they can use in many areas of their lives.

Even better, it is a sustainable and empowering skill that can have profound implications for people as they work through challenges and overcome the inevitable difficulties that come with being human.

You can support people to ask themselves good quality questions by:

  • Modelling – when working alongside people, gently challenge or reframe questions so that they are more useful and helpful. Support them to think about how they feel when they ask themselves different kinds of questions.
  • Teaching – if you work with groups or in classrooms (or with individuals), have a discussion about different types of questions. Get participants to ask each other a mixture of poor and good quality questions (prepare these before the session) and get them to rate how they feel afterwards. Which questions left them feeling hopeful and energised? Which questions left them feeling powerless and stuck?
  • Self-reflection – think about the quality of the questions you ask yourself. Are they good quality questions? By learning to ask yourself better quality questions, it becomes much easier to support others to do the same (and you might be pleasantly surprised by the changes that result in your own life).

Working in this way supports people to become their own experts, make their own decisions and feel more empowered to work through challenges in a proactive and hopeful way.

What’s the best question you have ever been asked? How did it change your life? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

Sue King-Smith


Our Deep Speak cards are full of engaging, powerful questions for young people and adults. The new edition (coming soon!) includes 120 simple, reflective questions, with over 30 new questions, and is perfect for having conversations about things like identity, relationships, emotions, values and beliefs.

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