Compassionate Curiosity – Asking Good Questions

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”
~Roy T. Bennett

From the Core Values

Curiosity: We are always intentional about how curiosity and inquiry support connection, growth, learning and engagement.

This curiosity isn’t fueled by personal gain but by a genuine interest in connection. We encourage curiosity while respecting the boundaries and protecting the privacy of the people we support.

We are continually curious, but not invasive, while challenging assumptions and narratives. We ask powerful questions. We offer generosity of assumption* to those who think differently than we do. We know that listening and asking questions are more important than providing answers.

Fostering a sense of curiosity within relationships supports connection. Curiosity is a powerful force in so much of our well-being, playing an important role in connection and communication.

Some benefits of cultivating curiosity:

  • Curiosity calms the nervous system
  • Curiosity supports us to seek out new possibilities, which makes way for HOPE
  • Curiosity is the antidote to a fixed mindset. It supports us in thinking differently and more mindfully while shifting our perspectives
  • Curiosity supports us to challenge our assumptions and biases
  • Curiosity encourages us to get to know other people better

Learning to ask powerful questions is important to peer support work. When we ask good questions, we are helping someone to tap into their inner wisdom and reflect in a new way. When we ask questions rather than give advice, we are acknowledging that we don’t in fact have the answers.

When we talk about curiosity, we want to make sure that we are clear on the purpose of our questions. If we are asking something to satisfy a self-focused curiosity or our own desire for information, it’s best to refrain from asking those types of questions. To assess whether or not a question is good for you to ask, we need to consider:

  • Who is benefiting from this question?
  • Is this question supporting the person to engage in self-reflection?
  • Does this question support connection?

Traits of Powerful Questions

Below each point, write your thoughts on why you think they are important.

1. Powerful Questions Are Always Open-Ended and Promote Reflection

An open-ended question is one that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Think of how you might start an open-ended question. Most often, strong questions start with WHAT, as they are neutral and encourage people to self-reflect. That’s not a hard and fast rule, though. A good question can also start with HAVE/HAS, HOW, IF, or CAN.

It’s important not to ask a question to which you are looking for a specific answer, because then it’s not open-ended.

Questions that promote reflection create opportunities for people to tap into their own knowing and insight. We can ask past-focused questions to help discover or uncover, and then future-forward questions to invite dreaming and planning.

Here are some examples:

  • “What has worked for you in the past when this has happened?”
  • “Have you noticed that before?”
  • “What do you think is the best for you?”
  • “What might                    ?
  • “What does                     feel like?”
  • “What is your dream for that situation?
  • “How would you do                     if you had the confidence to do it?”

If someone tells you they are feeling anxious today, asking a powerful question can help them to figure out more specifically how they are feeling and what potentially made them feel that way.

However, it’s important to note here that a WHY question is often best avoided in a peer situation. A WHY question is a different kind of question, as it tends to ask people to analyze their situation. “Why did you do that?” Or “why are you always so hard on yourself?” “Why” questions slip into more of a counseling type of situation, and we want to avoid that.

2. Powerful Questions Are Fuelled by Curiosity and Aren’t Focused on an Agenda

Sometimes when we ask a question with a hidden agenda, trying to elicit a specific response, it can feel really uncomfortable for the person we are asking. They can often sense that we are trying to guide the conversation, rather than approaching it with genuine curiosity.

When having a heart to heart, asking a question like “have you ever thought about going for counseling?” is not an open-ended question. In a way, we are really just offering a bit of underhanded advice disguised by a question. A better, more powerful question might be, “What have you done in the past that has helped you?” Some people respond well to “what’s worked in the past, and what didn’t work?”

3. Powerful Questions Stimulate Reflection

When given the gift of space to reflect on a situation, people are more likely to find the answer within themselves.

Be ok with silence. Don’t feel like you have to fill up the space with talking. The space of silence can be a powerful opportunity for reflection–for both the person you are talking to, and also you yourself!

What can you do to get more comfortable with silence?

4. Powerful Questions in Peer Support Are Always Trauma-Informed and Safe.

Remember – be cautious not to ask questions that will cross into a therapist role.

In peer support, using powerful questions that are trauma-informed and safe means:

  • We know that a whole lot of people have a history of trauma, so there is a good chance the person you are talking to does, too.
  • We make safety the utmost priority
    Don’t ask triggering questions. Before you ask something, reflect on whether or not it is a safe question, and whether it could be harmful to someone in any way.
  • Choice is always paramount
    Remember that people always need to have choice. That is huge for anyone, and especially a trauma survivor. If you are noticing that they aren’t engaging in answering questions, let them know that they have the choice not to answer your questions.


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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