Speech bubble sticky notes with question marks on them against a pink background
Getty Images

Hal Gregersen, a lecturer at The MIT Sloan School of Management, may be on to something. He suggests that the key to getting unstuck in your organization is to take a step back before you start proposing solutions. Often the initial solutions we gravitate toward are rooted in assumptions we already hold — which may be the reason for the problem. Instead, consider starting with questions. Lots of questions.

How often do congregational leadership teams spend a full meeting generating questions? Some people are genuinely uncomfortable if a meeting doesn’t end with a list of answers, assigned tasks and due dates. This is not a knock against looking for answers: it’s just that we may not find the right answer until we ask enough of the right kind of questions.

Gregersen talks about “catalytic questioning” and “question bursts” as a great way to see what you aren’t seeing and find a better way to address tough challenges. Question bursts are supposed to be a better way to brainstorm. In a one-on-one setting, one person launches question after question to another person, who is prohibited from answering the questions. They instead write down the questions word for word. The idea is that the person on the receiving end learns to see the problem from a new perspective.

Catalytic questioning is a similar process; it uses question bursts in a group format.

What’s key in both processes is that you must pick an issue that the receiver or the team cares about, then generate dozens of questions, perhaps up to 50. The point of the questions is not to elicit technical information. The questions should be open-ended and structured to broaden people’s imaginations. After you come up with a massive list of questions, cull the list to just a handful of generative ones that will best serve your group’s objectives. Once you find the right question, you’ll be on the path to the answers you seek.


A woman writes on a board in front of a team

Let’s take a step back

Sometimes moving forward requires first stepping back to consider the perspective of others, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

By David L. Odom

Artist AG holds up a photo taken of him by Wildstyle Paschall who is displaying his work at an event for The Learning Tree in Indianapolis.

What brings you joy? An urban neighborhood strengthens its community by asking unexpected questions

The Learning Tree initiative takes a different route to enhancing community by focusing on talents and gifts — not poverty.

By Shari Finnell

An illustration of a woman with question marks above her head, looking up toward a tangle of lines

Facing wicked problems in anxious times

When we approach dauntingly complex decisions from a place of empathy and curiosity, we might discover a different solution.

By Victoria Atkinson White

A close-up on a selection of colorful rubber balls

The how of asking good questions

Christian leaders spend their workdays asking questions, but few are trained in how to ask good ones. Good questions are powerful tools for building relationships, assessing needs, creating an atmosphere of inquiry and imagination, and charting a way forward.

By Gretchen E. Ziegenhals

Before you go…

Several years ago, I learned about a Quaker practice called a “clearness committee.” Clearness committees are small groups — four to six people — who assemble to help someone discern an issue in their life. The key to a good clearness committee is to bring people together who will ask good questions.

A good question is one that invites the listener to reflect. These questions don’t elicit “yes” or “no” answers. Powerful questions might lead to silence, long sighs or tears. In a proper clearness committee, the group asks questions for almost two hours. The whole process is counterintuitive and countercultural, but I can tell you from personal experience that the answer is often in the question.

You can reach me and the Alban Weekly team at alban@duke.edu. Until next week, keep leading!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity

More on this topic