“Computers are useless. They only give you answers.” – Pablo Picasso
We humans are capable of using words for communication, instead of only sounds, signs, or behaviors, to exchange information or to express our ideas, thought and feelings. If we bring these words into a certain order it can form a question. As communication is an essential part of our daily lives, we can drastically improve it by asking better questions. More on the technical aspect of questions in a second, but first let’s see what advantages the use of questions has – for ourselves and for others.
Before assuming, we should ask
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov
We humans are thirsty for knowledge and have the tendency to explain everything so that we can make sense of it or get the feeling that we have the control over it. Although this curiosity is in many ways our drive to try new things, it can be misleading when we can’t find a satisfying answer. The danger lies in when we take wrong statements for true information, by for example blindly believing what others tell us. We start to make assumptions, which leads to believing the false information. Instead we should question our beliefs from time to time. How can we do that? By simply asking more questions!
Judging too quickly
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow
Generalization and categorizing is also a fascinating human ability. Since we are daily faced with so much information and input, we tend to label certain people or experiences. It simply makes the input easier and faster to process. But unfortunately we overlook the individuality and uniqueness of every person and situation.
Before judging, labeling or categorizing, why do we not take some time to ask more questions, so that we truly understand the situation or the person involved?
Opportunity for learning
“Questions are one of the most powerful tools for building learning environments and promoting successful performance.” – Will Thalheimer
By asking questions we are actually facing an opportunity to learn something new. We could learn about a topic we are interested in; we could get a totally new insight or we could simply clarify an issue which is troubling us. This all depends on the answer we get, but we will never get any kind of answer if we do not ask a question in the first place.
The more the better
“When you know better, you do better.” – Maya Angelou
The more questions we ask, the more we can learn. Thus, the more we know, the better we can act. Let me be clear that all the knowledge is worthless if we do not apply what we know.
We should get answers from a diverse set of people or sources, so that we can take into account all perspectives. Absorbing the knowledge requires however that we listen to the answers we get. When we communicate we tend to formulate a reply in our mind, which means that we are not paying our full attention to our conversation partner. With questions we can pay our full attention to what is said, then take the time to process it and ask a question for further elaboration.
So far we have taken a look at what benefits we can get when we ask questions to others. Besides learning and getting to the cause of a problem, asking more questions actually gets people to like the person who asked the question.
In addition, the persons who ask questions are in control over the conversation, since they can direct the flow of the communication.
Simply asking questions can make us connect to other people, but it can also connect us more to ourselves.
Interrogative self-talk can boost our self-esteem, as Dan Pink points out in his book ‘To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others’.
“The researchers instructed the first group to ask themselves whether they would solve the puzzles — and the second group to tell themselves that they would solve the puzzles. On average, the self-questioning group solved nearly 50 percent more puzzles than the self-affirming group. “
Asking ourselves if we can do a certain task is more committing than simply trying to push ourselves through positive self-talk like ‘I can do this.’ We come up with reasons why we can do it and we believe in ourselves, based on the presented arguments.
Asking ourselves a question can also lead to focusing on what is important to solve that question. In a post about how to make sense of the past the Pennebaker writing exercise was presented, which basically asks why a certain event happened to us. By answering that question, we can resolve the issue and find inner peace to move on. However, it can also work in a forward-looking way by asking what do I want from live and how do I get there. By answering these questions we will be able to figure out what needs to be done to reach our goals. This has an influence on our behavioral decision-making since “Good strategy begins with good questions.” This best-self exercise was presented in how to live a happy life. But to give a simpler example, by asking ourselves what needs to be done in order to be prepared for that meeting today, we will immediately be zooming in on the relevant tasks.
Before you “assume”, try this crazy method called “asking”. – Unkown
Asking ourselves questions works also for reflection. I try to reflect at the end of every day by asking myself the following questions:
- What do I wanted to achieve today?
- How satisfied am I with the result?
- What could I change to get a different result next time?
In this way I am working on myself every day and even if I make only slow progress today, I have learned a valuable lesson for tomorrow. All these small daily things will add up and over time we will see the progress we made. The ultimate question we need to answer before taking any kind of action, however, is why. Why am I doing this and can I justify it with my beliefs and values?
The technical side of questions
In their simplest form questions can either be open or closed.
Open or interrogative-led questions allow for a wide range of possible answers, since they are not that specific. This has the advantage that we could get a lot of information by asking these kinds of questions. But the downside is that the responses might be long and not focused. Open questions are for example:
- How am I feeling today?
- Why am I doing this?
- If you could wake up tomorrow and change one thing in my life what would that be?
The other type of questions is closed ones, which are mostly verb-led. They are more specific and basically allow only a one word response, which is mostly a yes or no. For example: Do you work here?
Closed questions could also ask for a definite answer based on the choices given. An example would be: Do you like working in a team or on your own?
Asking for specific information can also be achieved through closed questions, like for example: What is the highest degree you possess?
The questioning technique developed by the great philosopher Socrates is aiming at getting to the core of the problem and challenging assumptions. It is a systematic approach which seeks meaning and truth in our reasoning. The Socratic questioning leads to critical thinking and reflection, which could influence our thinking and actions. It does this through communications, or more accurate through asking questions.
There are six types of questions Socrates asked his pupils.
Conceptual clarification questions
These questions basically ask for more information, going deeper into the topic and identifying the concept behind an argument. Possible questions are:
- Why are you saying this?
- What exactly does this mean?
- Can you give me an example?
The second type of questions is aiming at reflecting on own unquestioned beliefs. This is done through questions like the following:
- What else could we assume?
- How did you choose those assumptions?
- How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
Probing rationale, reasons and evidence
We often take provided rational explanations as given, instead of questioning the reasoning behind it. The third category of Socratic questioning aims at identifying weak arguments.
- Why is that happening? / What is the nature of this?
- How do you know this? / What evidence is there to support what you are saying?
- Ask repeatedly why a certain event is happening. (Learn the 5-why technique)
Questioning viewpoints and perspectives
Most often the arguments made are based on a certain perspective. With the fourth type of questions this viewpoint is challenged, to make sure that other positions are taken into account as well.
- What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
- Who benefits from this?
- Why is it better than…?
Probing implications and consequences
With the fifth type of Socratic questioning the logical implications of the presented arguments and their desirability are evaluated.
- Then what would happen?
- What are the consequences of that assumption?
- How does that affect…? / Why is … important?
Questions about the question
The last type of questions aims at reflecting about the previously made questions. Basically making sure that the questioned persons understand why these questions were asked and realize the value it brought to critically reflect on their assumptions and arguments. This can be achieved with the following questions:
- What was the point of asking these questions?
- Why do you thing I asked that question?
- What else might I ask?
Are there stupid questions?
Last but not least, I want to reflect on if there are stupid questions. I have given the benefits of asking questions and argued that the more we ask the more we will know. Socrates has provided us with some qualitative questions that seek the truth of arguments. If you are still not convinced that asking questions benefits you and the person who is asked, let me give a last advice.
Sometimes we might be overcome by the feeling, that asking a specific question would seem not appropriate or relevant. What we forget is that by asking questions we are showing interest to learn more. So the intent is always positive and that should not be forgotten or even discouraged.
There are no stupid questions. The quality of our questions just reflects the knowledge we currently possess and how, or in which direction, we are thinking.
“The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.” – Confucius
What question are you asking currently to find an answer to?
Dan Pink’s book ‘To Sell Is Human: The Suprising Truth About Moving Others’ can be brought on Amazon. It offers counter-intuitive insights and claims that everyone is working in sales.
Thalheimer, W. (2003-2014). The learning benefits of questions. Retrieved November 21, 2016. Available at: www.worklearning.com/catalog.html