The power of questions in knowledge work

As facilitators we need to appreciate the role and power of questions. Verna Allee has a small section in her book (p230) that helps the reader to appreciate the value of questions.

  • Questions are very strong attractors in the chaos of ideas, they gather, focus, attract and energize the conversation.
  • Only? questions have the power to beak our current midsets, they set in motion the deep relection needed to alter our beliefs.
  • It is the place and the space 'between not knowing and our desire to know' where we are most attentive, self-aware and alive. Questions hold the key to this special area.
  • Compelling and quality questions drive knowledge creation and expansion in a fundamental way. Knowledge emerges around good questions.
  • Questions energize and glue our conversation, draw people into the circle to participate and gather diverse opinions.
  • Questions keep the conversation moving forward, awaken dormant discourse and may be used to guide the subject back on course.

A taxonomy of questions work in progress 10/07/98 compiled by Denham Grey and T.J. Eliott and then added to by those in the Facilitation Handbook

based in part upon Bloom's Taxonomy's Model Questions and Key Words as Developed and Expanded by John Maynard .


(drawing out factual answers, testing recall and recognition)


(translating, interpreting and and extrapolating)


(to situations that are new, unfamiliar or have a new slant for students) (e.g., what would happen if, what would result


(breaking down into parts, forms) (e.g., what is the function of , what assumptions, what does author believe, assume; what is the premise


(combining elements into a pattern not clearly there before) (e.g., how would you test; propose an alternative; how else would you


(according to some set of criteria, and state why) (e.g., which is more important, moral, better, logical, valid, appropriate)

(to this is added a rough extension of the taxonomy)

Questions of clarification

After some material exists in a conversation or dialogue, a questioner may seek to understand the others "frame of reference." Further according to Hayakawa, the questioner "seeks to avoid . All implications of skepticism or challenge or hostility." 4 The questioner often restates in his or her words what they think they heard and ask the original speaker to confirm that account. There are other more specific question of clarification that may lead from an agreement that the two now have a shared frame of reference.

Purpose questions

Why do we do this? Why did you say that? The motivation or cause is sought.

Prompting questions

"Prompt the interviewee and keep the conversation on track with such questions as, `What do you do first?' `Then what?' and so on, until you come to, "What do you do last?'

Attitude questions

How do you feel about what happened? What way do you see the world? Does that look good to you? What are your preferences in this matter?

Commitment questions

Who's with me on this? Can I count on you? The questions of accountability and responsibility are here. Will you be accountable? Will you share responsibility?

Affirming questions

Was that as good for you as it was for me? Wasn't that fun? Isn't this very good?

Questions of uniqueness or Example questions

Can you give me an illustration of that? Some more concrete way of describing it? Instances, cases, and models are sought here. Hayakawa cites Irving Lee for this category in which you might find questions such as, "Exactly what kind of synthetic plastic did you use in making that product?" Hayakawa says that such questions "are designed to prevent the functional deafness which we induce in ourselves by reacting to speakers and speeches in terms of the generalizations that we apply to them." They ask for the "particular characteristics" 4

Disagreeing Questions or Questions of Protest

The listener or reader sees the situation another way and asks a question to discern whether the other is aware of another viewpoint. They are often phrased with a negative, "Are there not other ways of looking at this problem?" "Have you dismissed the framework suggested by the previous speaker?" the person seeks clarification but also wishes to announce at the least their disagreement and in some cases the gist of their p.o.v.

Rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions are meant not to be answered, but to provoke thought. They are as the Latin author Quintillian categorized them:


the question which requires no answer because it expresses a truth which cannot be denied


the question to which we immediately supply our own answer


"a string of questions uttered in rapid succession for emotional emphasis"


"an enquiry addressed to another in a tone of amazement in which it is hard for the other person to figure out how to reply" 5


"The use of `would' in a question makes it hypothetical, a possibility for the audience to consider. Here are some examples of hypothetical questions: "What would you do if we had an earthquake right now?" and "How would you handle it if you discovered one of your employees abusing drugs?" Such questions lead the trainer into explaining how the forthcoming training session will provide answers."


"Polling questions often begin, `How many of you...?' Some examples: `How many of you give good instructions?' and `How many of you have performed CPR?' "

Review questions

These are questions that challenge others to tell what their intake was after some session, class, conversation, or instruction. For example, what do you/we now mean by a CoP?

Summarizing questions

Is there anything that we didn't get to? What did you like best? What is your opinion of this subject now?

Questions, the route to inquiry?

Here are question sets that explore: 1) What you would like to know? 2) Something you would like to say? 3) Can you be of assistance? 4) Going on a journey of discovery? 5) Imagine the possibilities?

Additions: Existential questions (questions about ultimate concerns) premises questions (those kinds of questions that probe unexamined beliefs behind practice)

In the second instance, I am informed by Karl Weick's defintion of premises: desired outcomes and the cause-effect linkage we believe will achieve those outcomes

Asking Effective Questions - process of a conducting an interview. The model characterized three modes of questioning: Active, Receptive and Observer.


We had a workshop at the Knowledge Ecology Fair (, called 'Creativity in Business', presented by Michael Ray.

We were given assignments to 'live-with' for a week and come back and share what was going on for us. One of the assignments was: Ask Dumb Questions. Here are the instructions we were given:

In this live-with we can hone our questioning skills and make more use of what we learned with Have No Expectations to ask questions without expectations.

In the Creativity in Business program we go through four tools for creativity: Faith in your own creativity, Absence of Judgment (destroying the inner voice of blame and criticism that we call the VOJ or Voice of Judgment), Precise Observation, and Penetrating Questions. Each of these tools supports the next one. In this fair you have already had the opportunity to try a live-with on Faith and now one on Questions.

Remember the idea here is to try the live-with out and have experiences now during the time of this fair and report them to us here for dialogue. We are not interested in "questions in your career" or discussion on the dirth of questions in business.

There are some suggestions for how to do live-withs in item #2 of this workshop. Let me give you a few more:

1. Observe how questions enter your life, how you and the people around you use questions.

2. Find your challenge around the live-with topic. In this case, you might notice that you can ask questions of yourself easily but have difficulty in speaking up to ask them in public settings, especially when there is a lot on the line. Whatever it is, your challenge can direct the way that you want to try the live-with.

3. Start small first. You don't have to leap off a cliff. Try asking dumb questions in small, comfortable situations and then build on your successes there to move into tougher situations.

4. Pay attention to your own creativity. This is actually the main key to bringing out your own creativity on a consistent basis. When you have an experience with questions, pay attention to it. Then if it is positive, just your paying attention to it will increase the probability that you will act in this way in future situations.

5. Celebrate and implement your discoveries. When you find something that works for you, celebrate that and use it again.


Creativity in Business Live-With: ASK "DUMB" QUESTIONS

"Dumb" questions are those questions we don't ask because we think the answer must be obvious, or we'll look silly, or we're supposed to know, or we're trying to control and manipulate rather than increase our awareness and creativity. In fact, dumb questions ignore or are "dumb to" the surface aspects of the situation and are brilliant in going for the deeper conditions where the creative possibilities are hidden, particularly in groups. They are the sort of naïve questions full of wonder ("wonder-full") that children aren't afraid to ask.

Do you remember the story of the Emperor's new clothes? A vain emperor is convinced that a weaver has made him a stunning suit of gorgeous light-weight clothes — so light, in fact, that he feels as if he's wearing nothing at all. Not wanting to look stupid, he doesn’t admit he can't see these clothes, and he parades proudly around town to show them off. Everyone Oohs and Ahs at the emperor's marvelous new clothes. No one dares look dumb by admitting they don't see them. A little child, however, pipes up, "How come the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes?" A very dumb question, because of course everyone "knows" he's wearing a suit of the most expensive fine fabric.

This question rocks the boat tremendously, and ultimately brings increased awareness and creativity to everyone when the masquerade is shattered.

This Live-With requires you to remember the creative little child that lives within your adult body, and to allow it to come alive this week, and to ask all the "dumb" questions that it wants to.

Do at least one of the suggested special assignments.


Special Assignment #1 Keep a daily log of questions you and others ask this week. Identify the penetrating and limited questions. Note what happens when these questions are asked. By the end of the week, start catching yourself when you are about to ask a question that isn't really "dumb," and either don't ask it or replace it with a good "dumb" question.

Special Assignment #2 Each day this week, ask at least one "dumb" question in public. It may be a clarification of a point made in a meeting or presentation, or it may be totally unrelated to work, like asking the Safeway checker how come they don't get to sit down while they punch the numbers. Rules of the game: o Only ask questions you are sincerely curious about; o Observe the reaction of the person you ask and of others who hear the question; o Listen to the actual content of the response; o Note your feelings and other reactions.

PRIVATE "DUMB" QUESTIONS Special Assignment #3

Pick an issue or area that is of importance to you and ask a series of "How come" questions about it as follows. For instance you can start with something like, "How come I'm always late

for meetings?" Then answer that with something like, "I hate meetings." Then make a new question related to the answer e.g. "How come I hate meetings?" and keep going QAQAQAQA until you find out something interesting or are satisfied.

Special Assignment #4 For three nights in a row, write an important "dumb" question in your journal right before you go to sleep. Mull it over as you drift off. See if your creative essence provides an answer in the form of a dream or a thought upon awakening. Write down any dreams or follow-up thoughts.

In playing fields (a private conference area) Kim has addressed a number of issues around the timing and nature of questions which I see as an important dynamic.

In the end I'm reminded that a question, any question, begs the answer, it closes the inquiry to other tacit and implicit issues. like a two-edged sword, questions certainly help, those asked 'at the edge of knowledge' as Kim states, carry greater value for all participants in terms of learning and inquiry, but we should also be aware and perhaps reflect on the power of questions to bind us to alternatives!

"any question, begs the answer, it closes the inquiry to other tacit and implicit issues."

...As does anything that relies on a representational,symbolic system IMHO. That being said - I am not sure we have an alternative when we are sharing meaning and learnings. I have found that I honor all the possibilities best when I am as clear as possible - with myself and the other person about the assumptions(frames) and intentions(do I believe that there is a "right" answer?) behind my questions.

I prefer to use the phrase "frames the answer" rather than "begs" it. And I personally am delighted when the answer expands or changes the shape of the frame - that is why I teach- to learn.

"leading" questions.

It is not the answer that enlightens but the question. --Eugène Ionesco

the importance of providing a place for questions only, that do not require immediate answers. It is a mode of reflection, just holding the questions.

"Literature is the question minus the answer." - Roland Barthes: It is there that the art and adventure lie, the possibility and power from my POV. It is not answers that really matter. We are more limited by the questions we ask. That we don't understand things is based on an inability to know what to ask-to even recognize phenomenon. This is the real problem with our brain and our capacity. - Stewart Hase


Questions and selling:

Using Questions in design:

Just questions:

Working with questions:

Personal empowerment:


"You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions."

Naguib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize Winner)