Strictly speaking, a catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction. Although they participate in reactions, catalysts are neither consumed by nor incorporated into the products of the reactions. There is just as much catalyst at the end of the reaction as there was at the beginning. Catalysts will not cause reactions to occur, but they will help reactions that would have occurred without them to proceed more quickly or at lower temperatures. In most cases only small amounts of catalysts are needed to increase reaction rates.
Catalysts work by providing easier ways for reactions to occur. In technical terms, they provide alternative reaction paths with lower activation energies. Every chemical reaction has a certain threshold, known as its activation energy that must be exceeded in order for the reaction to occur. A catalyst does not lower the activation energy of a reaction, but instead provides an alternative that produces the same results with a lower threshold. A good analogy is a bridge over a valley. Without the bridge, it might be possible to cross the valley by driving down one twisting road and then back up another. A bridge allows the valley to be crossed more quickly and with less energy. It does not reduce the amount of energy needed to drive down one side and up the other, but instead offers an alternate way to achieve the same results while using less energy.
Catalytic questions, then, are questions that provoke alternative reactions and easier ways forward. You might not know if a question is going to be catalytic, but you can practice asking more provocative questions and will find that some energize the discussion and enable new or better paths forward.
During a 1999 flight from New Mexico to Sienna, Italy, I asked my husband the following: "If you could be any place, doing any kind of work, where would you be and what would you be doing?" This question ended up catalytic because it encouraged Bill to express goals he'd not shared, and this started a conversation that five weeks later resulted in us moving to Seattle where Bill started his own company. BAM!
The catalyst does not have to be so life changing to be powerful. Consider these questions, which could be catalytic for some in some circumstances:
Think about what you pull into the most these days. The activity or topic that energizes you. What adjustments could you make to increase the time you spend doing this activity?
Who would you like me to connect you with? (or, let me tell you about Sally...would you like me to connect the two of you?)?
Evangelists are passionate, loyal, and dedicated fans jacked up on caffeine. What would you hope your evangelists do?
In the scheme of things, does this really matter? If you stopped, what would happen?
If you had all the courage in the world, what would you do or ask for?
Embedded in catalytic questions is a deep and authentic curiosity. This is the key, because when we're engrossed in a conversation and curious, we inquire about more relevant topics.
It's fun to ask questions that end up being catalytic. We should all strive to help those we care for move forward more easily. And there's no reason we can't ask ourselves catalytic questions.
What's the question that would open up new possibilities for you?