The Power of Questions

A simple technique that can transform difficult problems


stacy becker

3 years ago | 3 min read

We’re taught in school that only correct answers count. So you better get them right.

In real life though, we confront problems all the time that don’t have just a single right answer, and sometimes have no obvious answer at all. Maybe the challenge is how to get your kids to eat vegetables. Or how to change the culture in your organization. It could be much bigger, such as countering climate change.

In cases like these, our usual bag of problem-solving tricks doesn’t work so well. Do we have greater consensus on how to act if climate change models become more precise? Can we control our child more? Does a memo to employees mandating new norms produce the desired culture change? Very probably not.

Medicine is no exception. When you are queried as an intern on the hospital floor you better have the right answer. Doctors are highly trained to solve problems — patients’ illnesses—by examining evidence and narrowing possibilities into a diagnosis. That training serves them well for purposes of diagnosis.

Then COVID-19 strikes. Hospitals are ambushed. The doctors’ training helps them discover effective treatment for this mysterious disease. It’s not enough. The patients keep coming. The patients keep dying. The anguish, grief, and overwhelm is stuffed deep inside in order to carry on one’s duties as a medical professional.

How the Power of Questions transformed grief

COVID-19 has thrust doctors, nurses, and health workers across this country into an emotional hell. My colleagues, Bridget Kelly and Barrie McClune, and I wondered how we might support them, and offered what we know best: the Power of Questions.

The Power of Questions is a simple technique anyone can use when stuck in a problem. The problem posed for health workers was:

How might I grieve the loss of patients to COVID when the need to “move on” to the next patient is so unrelenting?

The video shows the Power of Questions in action. Participants explored the problem by offering open-ended questions which required no answers, such as:

  • What have we learned from COVID about the relationship between the personal and professional?
  • If you could hear words of support from those you have cared for who then have died, what might they say?
  • What if grieving isn’t a thing we “do” but something we live in our daily lives?
  • How is grieving part of the excellence of being a good health care professional?
  • How do we handle guilt in grieving?

At the end of the ten-minute session (yes, only ten minutes!), the doctor who posed the problem said:

The old pattern I had for thinking about this question is now broken. I was using too few words.

Adding words like excellence, love, opportunity, responsibility around grief helps displace the fairly routine, generic association in my field and in my country with grief as a slightly shameful and very personal act and emotion. I’m smiling because (this session) makes me see how silly that is.

The Power of Questions is magical because it opens rather than narrows complex problems, allowing us to see a problem more fully by broadening it beyond our own knowledge, training, and experience. Adding perspective also adds opportunities for action.

One more thing: people walk away from the Power of Questions feeling highly supported. Participants offer questions that are genuinely curious rather than judgmental or advisory. There’s no pressure to have the right answers, or even any immediate answers.

If you’re stuck on a problem, or feel you could use some support, I encourage you to give the Power of Questions a try.

Power of Questions is a practice as much as a technique. The Human Systems Dynamics Institute practices each weekday with a 20 minute session and welcomes anyone who is interested; there is no charge. Register here. More information about the methods can be found here.


Created by

stacy becker

I am a big-hearted pragmatist who looks at tough problems in new ways. After years of leadership in various sectors, I have turned to complexity theory to better address the tough issues of our world. Aha! There's a reason we get stuck! Now consulting and training. Website on its way...







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