Power of Questions: Why the Reluctance to Ask Them?

The Power of Questions

Effective question-asking benefits both asker and answerer. Having used the word “power,” recognize that I am not advocating using questions to misrepresent, manipulate, or exert pressure. Instead, I believe that questions enable you to clearly define wants and needs so that you can ultimately fulfill them.

Consider five “powers” of questions (Leeds 2000):

  • Questions create an obligation to respond: Remember, in class, when a teacher or professor asked you a question and then was silent? Most people’s natural inclination is to fill that silence with something and, therefore, we do our best to answer the question. I am not suggesting that we try to cause embarrassing discomfort, but am simply noting a natural tendency.
  • Questions stimulate the thinking of both the asker and answerer: Preparing and asking questions causes you to think more deeply and broadly about the organization that may use your services. Similarly, their thinking is enhanced as they respond to your questions.
  • Questions provide valuable data, information, and knowledge: While your questions reveal your concern for the other party and reflect your expertise, answers to your questions provide you with the data, information, and knowledge needed to be of service.
  • Questions put the asker “in the driver’s seat:” You can use questions to direct a conversation in a direction that could potentially be useful to you and the other person and his or her organization.
  • Questions enable people to persuade themselves: Thoughtful questions, and the thinking they stimulate, tend to define issues and move all parties toward resolution. As someone said, “a problem well-defined is half solved.” More specifically, your questions can help you and the other person ascertain values, discover and/or elaborate issues, reveal wants, identify needs, define milestones, formulate options, and select a course of action.

Question-Asking Barriers and How to Remove Them

Given the five powers of questions, certainly we engineers proactively ask them. Not so, as revealed by my experience and on polls I have conducted during webinars and other presentations. While we may see the value of questions, we encounter, or think we encounter, barriers.

Based on my polls that offer four choices (Walesh 2012), the three minor barriers are:

1) Reluctance to question authority:  Recognize that most of us are authorities, just on different things. The person you interact with is an authority on some things. Similarly, you as a professional, are an authority on other things. By asking questions, you are not questioning the authority of the other person. Instead, you are reflecting yours.

2) Miscellaneous, such as not knowing what or how to ask.

3) Coming across as rude/intrusive: Someone said “I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.” We demonstrate care, not rudeness, by preparing and asking thoughtful, probing questions. Of course, the questions are asked in a polite, sensitive manner.

The biggest barrier?  Appearing uninformed/poorly prepared. As illogical as it may seem, too many engineers fear that asking questions will cause others to view them as not being knowledgeable or ready.

Consider this scenario: Tomorrow morning you awake with a pain in your chest and are rushed to the hospital emergency room. The doctor asks: “What’s wrong?” You answer, “chest pain,” and the doctor says, “we are immediately performing triple by-pass heart surgery.”

The pain aside, how would you feel? Might you want the doctor to ask more questions as part of a careful diagnosis of your problem before deciding how to solve the problem? Maybe the pain was caused by something you ate.

My point: Asking questions does not indicate you are uninformed or poorly-prepared. It should mean just the opposite, that is, because you are well-informed and thoroughly-prepared, you know what to ask. The type and number of questions you ask reveal your expertise -- and your care.

In preparation for an interview regarding a potential education and training project, I prepared a list of 24 questions for the potential client with the hope that I would be able to ask some of them. On arriving at their office and meeting with them, I discovered that they were not well prepared in that their leader immediately said something like “So what would you like to know?” I asked, and they answered, essentially all of the questions and they immediately retained me for their project.

I suspect that my questions suggested that I cared, was informed, and prepared.

Cited Sources:

Leeds, D. 2000. The 7 Powers of Questions: Secrets to Successful Communication in Life and Work. Berkley Publishing: New York.

Walesh, S. G. 2012. Engineering Your Future: The Professional Practice of Engineering, Chapter 14, “Marketing: A Mutually-Beneficial Process,” Wiley: Hoboken, NJ.

Image source: Pixabay


  • I welcome opportunities to speak, teach, conduct workshops, and collaborate about question-asking or any aspect of communication. Contact me at stu-walesh@comcast.net or 219-242-1704.

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