“Knowledge is knowing the right answer. Intelligence is asking the right questions.” – Unknown.
The History Teacher
I grew up in an environment where I wasn’t encouraged to practice critical inquiry. It was a typical conservative household where children had to be “seen and not heard.” At best, I was allowed to ask questions that didn’t make anyone uncomfortable about their beliefs and values (religion and politics were to be avoided).
But, my senior high school history teacher, Mr Wensley, encouraged us to think critically. I loved his classes because, to my parents’ dismay, I loved questioning everything. Politics, religion, rules… you name it, I questioned it – even authority. I wanted to know who made all the rules, why they got to decide, how we could know they were right, and why we had to listen to them. As you can imagine, my probing often landed me in hot water.
I still remember how energized I felt in Mr Wensley’s classes. When we did exams, and could go beyond the facts with our own insights into historical events, we even got bonus points. I loved it! Mr Wensley wanted us to think more deeply about historical events, rather than just learn the facts. To develop such deeper insights, we had to ask critical questions about those events.
We had to challenge general assumptions, our own ideas, and even our own explanations of the facts we had learned. This included asking, “What could have made this event play out differently?” or, “How could this country’s behavior have made a difference to that event?” What would normally have been a study of facts became an exercise in critical thinking.
This teacher knew that, if he presented us with answers, we’d probably stop thinking. He knew that thinking wasn’t driven by answers, but by inquiry. So, instead of giving classes containing all the answers, his lessons usually had lots of questions.
The Art of Asking Good Questions
When I grew older, I realized that the ability to ask questions was my best friend, on condition that I asked them in the right way… and at the right time.
There are many different types of questions: of purpose and logic, for instance. Questions of precision give us more detail, and questions of assumption help us to examine how we think. We can also inquire about interpretation to evaluate how well people understand something. Questions of accuracy can help us to establish factual correctness.
In our Twitter chat last Friday we discussed the art of asking good questions. Although good questions are at the heart of effective communication, there are times when you shouldn’t ask questions, and there are also times when asking questions may be difficult.
Here are some of your responses.
Q1. Why is it important to master the art of asking good questions?
@dshlvrsn You don’t know until you ask. There is no substitute. Not observing, not doing and especially not guessing.
@imaginyst Mastering good question asking is important because it is fundamental to the art of good communication.
Q2. In which situations do you find asking questions to be powerful?
@JKatzaman Asking questions is most powerful amid uncertainty. Critical information received could change your destiny.
@LorenMargolis When there is a need to deepen trust and bridge communication differences. Questions show our desire to truly understand intent.
Some practical advice came from @harrisonia: It’s important to ask your medical, insurance, and tax professionals good questions because they can affect the outcome of your life.
Q3. In which situations do you find asking questions to be difficult?
Sometimes it’s difficult to ask questions, but we still have to ask them.
@ChaimShapiro It can be difficult to ask hard questions to people who have authority over you.
@Jikster2009 When I already know the answer but have to ask; when it is unexpected by the recipient or when it could open a can of worms.
@AubItsGreatUF Asking questions can be difficult when the topic is emotional, private or traumatic. Being sensitive to others is very important.
Q4. How can asking yourself good questions help you?
It’s easy to declare yourself a victim simply by the questions you ask yourself. Asking yourself good questions can help you develop self-awareness and balance your locus of control.
@jeremypmurphy One of my goals is to learn something new everyday. If I don’t ask questions, it’s tougher to learn.
@ZalkaB It’s a great exercise and tool to help to learn about yourself, about your setbacks, fears or just an expedition of your inner map.
Q5. How do you deal with questions like, “Why does this always happen to me?”
@WonderPix> Some questions need to be questioned. “Really, is that true?” “Why do you think/feel that?” “What is behind that question?”
@BiscuitByte Challenge the negative thinking and encourage the person, helping them to put things back into perspective.
Q6. What are some examples of empowering questions?
Empowering questions help us make the distinction between truth and perception. They can also help us see opportunities instead of obstacles.
@MicheleDD_MT How can I make a difference in this world? What is the legacy I want to leave? How can I turn this around?
@SanabriaJav What resources do you need to succeed?
@haeheti4 Like asking yourself: Am I under pressure? What is the outcome if I did this?
Q7. When shouldn’t you ask questions?
@amypen64 When the person has shut down, you are getting nowhere and only making the situation worse.
@KLC2978 When it’s clear the other person needs to talk. When encouraging others to come up with ideas/solutions themselves.
@Midgie_MT When someone is having an intense emotional release (such as crying). Let the emotion subside before asking questions.
Q8. What can you do to ensure that your questioning does not come across as interrogation?
@Limha75 Avoid “scattergunning” and wait for a natural break (or until the end). Your question might get answered before you ask it!
@E_Toohig Tone of voice, body language and facial expressions say as much about the emotion and intent behind the question as your words.
Q9. How did you handle feeling “shut down” because of someone’s questions?
@TwisterKW I need time. Darn tears. May need to walk away. Try ask my own questions or find way to gain some control, even if just of self.
@maat333 Looking for the reason, analysing what happened, learning in the process and for the future. It’s not always bad (another way to grow).
Q10. If you could give others one bit of advice about asking good questions, what would it be?
@MaryEllenGrom Do your homework first. Ask to learn, not hear.
@Yolande_MT Ask more than you tell. Listen more than you talk.
We close on a cheerful note with this answer from @BrainBlenderTec: Any good question and answer is like a tango: you leave a bit of yourself and gain understanding of each other.
Next time, on #MTtalk…
Restructuring is a reality that many of us have had to go through. In our Twitter poll this week we ask how you’re most likely to cope with an organizational restructure. Please vote over here to let us know.
In our next #MTtalk on Friday, June 9, our topic is “Coping with Restructuring.” To share your thoughts and ideas, please join us at 1 p.m. EST/5 p.m. GMT/ 10:30 p.m. IST.
To participate in our chat about coping with restructuring, type #MTtalk in the Twitter search function. Then, click on “All Tweets” and you’ll be able to follow the live chat feed. To join the conversation, simply include #MTtalk in your tweet and it will show up in the chat feed.
In the meantime, here are some resources that will help you learn more about the art of asking good questions: