Asking empowering questions

by Mark E. Taylor



When I got the kind invitation to contribute to this topic of asking questions, it took me back a long way in time (back to the end of the last decade of the 20th century in fact) to when I was taking my first conscious steps into concepts like resource-oriented youth work and experiential learning with great colleagues like Dirk de Vilder of Outward Bound Belgium and Andi Krauss of Network ROPE in Germany. We realized that when working with young people it was NOT our role to be “Know-alls” (or “Besserwisser”), rather to be “Better questioners” (or “Besserfragensteller”) in our attempts to support them in their learning and development. I realize that this has had a big influence on the last 30 years of my career, so it’s good for me to share some of the ideas, which I have learned. Maybe some of them could be interesting for you!

(And of course there will be lots of questions in there!)


Basics – things to think about

– What is your context?

What is your relationship with the young person(s)? What are their needs? What are the reasons for you being in contact? Is this a one-off meeting or do you have a long-term perspective for working on this? Think of the consequences… How much time do you have?

Although your role is not one of “the therapist”, bear in mind that such discussions can often have a therapeutic effect!


– What is your stance? 

Where are you coming from? How do you see yourself – as coach, or mentor, or something else?

Like when giving feedback, my experience is that a stance of goodwill towards your conversation partner is crucial in helping to create a relationship of trust through dialogue.  (This means respecting that person – you don’t have to like them!).

How much are you prepared?

What is the difference between an open and a closed question? When do you think it’s best to ask a question which has only three possible answers: yes; no; or maybe? Are you asking a question which is designed to lead the young person to a specific answer? (If so, think again!)


Constructing questions for a given person in a given context is not so easy – you need to think about such things and practice so that you build up a stock of questions ready to adapt in your head.  In this kind of approach we are trying to help open up choices and possibilities so that young people can make and own their decisions. Depending on the situation, it can be really useful for you to ask for feedback from the young people concerned (and colleagues) about your role in supporting them.


The triangle of the three what’s

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?


Working on experiential learning processes with young people, I learned this simple series of three questions can be very helpful when you are reviewing either what is going on at the moment or, indeed, after a process has ended. At all stages, you are trying to stimulate thought processes and get the young person to verbalise what is going on inside themselves.


What? As in: what happened? Get them to describe as objectively as possible what happened in a series of events.


So what? As in: so why is this important for you? How did it affect you?

Now what? As in: so what do you want to do or to experiment with next? What is your goal?

Does culture play a part in posing questions?


I am always a bit wary of making cultural generalisations as I find that they often help build up stereotypes and discrimination. What I will say is that the education system through which the young person has passed (or is passing) plays an enormous role in pre-defining the relationship you have with them from the start. And that is irrespective of whether you define yourself as an educator, youth worker, trainer, or teacher, etc etc.  


You can think of this as a spectrum. At one end there is the teacher as the centre of the education process and at the other end the pupil is the centre of the process. In their schools, were the teachers expected to be the “fount of all wisdom”, the experts, the ultimate knowledge bearers? Meaning that pupils were regarded merely as receivers of knowledge? Or were they in a system where the pupil was regarded as a fellow traveller on the path to knowledge?


So when they meet you, as an “educator” of some sort, their expectations will be based on their previous experience of such people. Imagine your reaction when a young person turns round and asks you something like “why are you asking me all these questions? You know the answer already!”

Gaining trust, establishing an open dialogue – these things demand different responses from you! Are you ready? (see the closed question?!) And if not, what are you going to do about it?


Good luck!