Critical GIS Skill # 6: The Power of Questions

Aug. 16, 2016

A GIS degree is technical and often attracts like-minded people. Schools do a great job of teaching those aspects of GIS including giving practical experience in GIS software applications like ESRI’s ArcGIS. However there are a lot of skills critical to a career in GIS that are not taught during the degree program, and that is what this blog series is designed to address.

Critical GIS Skill #6: The power of questions

If you have children at home around the ages of 3-4 or older, you probably remember the “Whys?” Why do I have to go to bed at 8? Why can’t I watch TV? Why do I have to eat lima beans (I’m sure I often asked that one)? That is our first introduction into asking questions. But, were you ever taught how to ask empowering questions? I doubt it. Parents often welcome questions initially, but after the 5th why or so, it gets old. So as children we often pick up the subliminal message that you should not ask too many questions. As we move to grade school and beyond, teachers are often concerned more about getting through a curriculum rather than helping children to ask effective questions. So by the time we enter adulthood and college, we are often conditioned to not ask questions, not even good questions.


I still remembering listening to Tony Robbin’s “Personal Power” audio program many years ago. One of the most impactful concepts he discusses in the program is the power of questions. It was my adult education on asking empowering questions. While you were earning your GIS degree, I’m sure some professors welcomed questions, while others considered them a nuisance. But were you ever taught how to ask effective questions? Questions that get to the heart of a client’s problem rather than just revealing the surface problem? I’ll bet not. In my college classes that contained projects, I was always given the problem. There was never a lecture on asking effective questions. Asking the right questions throughout your career will be one of the major determining factors in your success as a GIS professional. Here are some strategies for asking more effective questions.

Open ended questions: An open ended question encourages a variety of approaches or responses. By asking clients open ended questions, you give them the chance to provide more background information. You get to see deeper into their needs.

Funnel Questions: Asking funnel questions helps you get to the heart of a problem. It’s a way of digging deeper into client needs. Start with general questions and then hone in on a point in each answer, asking more and more detail at each level. Start with closed ended questions and use more open ended questions as you dig deeper.

Probing Questions: Probing questions also help you get deeper into understanding a customer need. It can be as simple as asking for an example to a statement that was made, or a series of questions to gain clarification. A good tool for this is asking the five whys. This technique helps you dig deeper into the client’s need. Probing questions are great for gaining clarification and drawing out information.

Possibility Questions: Possibility questions open up a whole new world for you and your clients. Far too often I see professionals in the middle of their career trapped into old strategies and technologies – unwilling to learn new things. Possibility questions ask “what if” and “how can I”. Asking possibility questions to clients can completely change a project, but at the same time make it far better. It’s a way of getting them to think beyond their immediate concern or need.

The questions you ask yourself are just as important as those you ask clients. Next time you hit a stumbling block, don’t say, “I can’t”, instead say “How can I”? Next time you are asked to learn a new GIS software application, don’t say “I don’t know that application” but say “How can I quickly and effectively learn it?” The questions you ask yourself will greatly determine your success in your career.

Asking the right questions produces better quality answers. Questions control the focus of a conversation. They are a powerful tool for learning more about the client and understanding their true needs. It builds relationships, helps you avoid misunderstandings, and can defuse a potentially heated situation. By asking empowering questions you can separate yourself from others in your field, quickly advancing your GIS career.

Begin applying these steps and watch your career accelerate. Stay tuned for more critical skills your GIS degree didn’t teach you. Add your thoughts and ideas below for the critical skills you believe your degree didn’t teach you.

Here are links to articles of other critical GIS skills from this series.

Critical GIS skill #1

Critical GIS skill #2

Critical GIS skill #3

Critical GIS Skill #4

Critical GIS skill #5

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