Updated: May 17
Let me start this piece with a confession. I am addicted to watching Penn and Teller. There. I said it.
If you haven’t seen one of their TV shows or their live shows (I’ve seen both), you’re seriously missing out on one of the greatest experiences of wonderment of the modern age. Their magic is incomparable and having been a performing duo for nearly 50 years, they have a capacity to entertain and amaze like no other.
Entertainment and witty banter aside, the thing I love most is their capacity to completely fool me. I simply do not know how they do what they do. I watch. I watch again. I replay in slo-mo. I see nothing.
And nothing gives me greater joy than not knowing. It’s that experience of not knowing that I really relish. If I knew how all their tricks were done, I think it would be a little tedious to watch quite frankly.
Not knowing has an enchanting quality to it. It’s the place from which questions can be asked. It’s the place from which discoveries can be made. It’s the place from which new ideas can be considered, without having to commit to any of them. It’s the place from which anything might be, because nothing is yet known.
Not knowing is also the position from which I’ve endeavoured to carry out my professional work as both a psychologist and coach for 30 years. This means I must ask; and I must be prepared to hear anything in response. Furthermore, I’ve learnt that the best questions to ask are those that are difficult to answer – those questions which first elicit a response of:
“I don’t know – I’ve never thought about that…”
In the practice of coaching, inquiry and questions are one of the basic ingredients we use – a little like flour to a baker, if you will. Powerful questions can ignite self-reflection, insight, awe, motivation, realization, and a host of other responses. But how do you get to the point of being able to ask questions that can do this?
In the 1990s I was fortunate to study with and be taught and supervised by some very talented family therapists. That experience really has been a great foundation for my career since then. I’ve never let go of the power of questions to ignite imagination. Recently, I took one of the ideas I was exposed to in the 90s and re-imagined it. The result is an article just published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, entitled (it’s a mouthful!):
The Question Cube Re-imagined – A 5-Dimensional Model for Cultivating Coaches’ Capacity for Curious Inquiry in Health Behaviour Change.
I describe there a model for understanding and deconstructing the elements of a question.
A common understanding of questions in coaching (and therapy!) really revolves around just one dimension – how open the question is; and even this dimension is often oversimplified into “open” and “closed” questions. In fact, the openness of a question really moves on a continuum from where a question may elicit a lengthy narrative response (open) all the way through to a single word response (closed - for example, yes or no). In the space between, there are wonderfully useful question formats such as rating or scaling questions (On a scale from zero to 10, how excited are you?) or ranking questions (Which of these appeals to you most? Which next?) and even forced choice questions (Which of those two emotions do you feel most strongly at the moment - anger or relief?).
The next dimension relates to the focus of the question. We all likely have an intuitive appreciation of this dimension, but don’t necessarily realise the powerful way in which we can use it to shape the meaning and intent of a question. Questions may focus on what someone is doing (action), what they're feeling (emotion), as well as the quality of a particular relationship that they have, beliefs that they hold and meaning that they ascribe to their own actions, or the actions of others.
For example, there are a number of ways in which I could inquire about a single event - a friend giving you a gift. I could ask:
What was the gift?
What feelings did you experience when you opened it?
How important is this person in your life?
What does the giving of this particular gift signify to you?
What does this action say about your friendship?
The third face of the question cube relates to the subject of the question. I could ask you a question about your own beliefs and values. I could also ask you about your perspective on another person’s beliefs or values and I could even ask you what views you imagine that other person might have about you.
It's that last perspective that I find particularly useful because it invites the client to step out of their own frame of reference and consider a different perspective. It's much like crossing the road to look at your own front garden. When you sit inside your house, you can see your front garden, but you only have your own perspective of it. If you cross the road, you now get to see your front garden as people on that side of the road get to see it. If you've ever tried this in real life (go on - give it a go now) you will almost certainly notice different things in your front garden that were previously obscured from the view you have within your own house.
The fourth dimension is fun - it's the dimension of time. Again, we probably know and use this intuitively, however it's really valuable to recognise that we can frame questions focused on the present, the past and the future. The usefulness of this is immediately obvious - it gives our clients (and us) a means of observing changes across time. If you ask me what I believe my best quality is, and you also ask me what I considered my best quality was two years ago, I'm now invited to engage in self-reflection on what those differences might be, and more importantly - what they might mean.
The final dimension is that of reality and possibility. The things we do, the things we have, the people we are, are all real. They might be in the past, present or future. For example, I was born in Australia; I love watching Penn and Teller; I will be warmer later today when I light the fire. But we also inhabit a world of possibility - a world in which we are free to imagine actions we might take and parts of ourselves that have not yet been called into being. For me, this is one of the most exciting parts of coaching: to be able to explore all the possibilities that conceptually exist; all the things that might be. And of course we can frame questions focused not only on “What is?” but also “What might be?”.
So the re-imagined Question Cube allows us to understand questions as ranging from “fully open” to “fully closed” as well as consider to whom the question is addressed, about whom, the subject matter, the timeframe and whether or not the question explores something that is or something that might be.
As with anything in life, once you’ve deconstructed something and really understand how it works, you can reconstruct it in almost any way you like.
I’ve written this in the hope that it might inspire you to engage in powerful inquiry; and if you are a teacher of coaching, counselling or therapy skills, my hope is that you’ll find this framework a straightforward and powerful means of teaching the compelling impact of well-crafted questions.
Questions are like keys to rooms you’ve never been in. If you approach with an open mind, a recognition that you don’t know what’s behind, you may just open the door to one of the most extraordinary adventures you could have.
What might be the best question you could ever ask?
Matthews, S. M. (2023). The Question Cube Re-imagined–A 5-Dimensional Model for Cultivating Coaches’ Capacity for Curious Inquiry in Health Behaviour Change. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 15598276231172910.