It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask

“Question everything,” Albert Einstein advised. This is a key to success, for the the answers we get are a consequence of the questions we ask.

Every December, I do a year-end review. One of the questions I ask is, “What are the most important lessons I’ve learned this year?”

2020 has offered the opportunity to get really good at asking questions. We could all see early on that we didn’t have answers for dealing with the upside-down world we found ourselves in. That’s when I found encouragement in the words of people like Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz who said, “you can tell a clever man by his answers and a wise man by his questions”.

Asking insightful questions has positively affected three areas of my life this year.
1) It has helped me make better decisions in navigating change both personally and professionally.
2) It has improved communication, and thereby relationships, with people who have a very different worldview during a season of deep polarization in our culture.
3) It has been a factor in spurring creative thinking and great interactions in teams I work with.

So why is it so easy to miss the power of the questions? At the age of four, children ask over 400 questions a day. If you’ve spent any time with a young child recently, this count will seem spot on. These questions usually spring from the fact that they don’t not know much about the world and they’re curious. And yes, it can be exhausting. But by the time we reach age 44, adults only ask about six questions a day. (As for me, I’m using about a dozen people’s questions every day.) There are many reasons for this, but it seems that not wanting to appear incompetent tops the list.

Could it be that we don’t ask more questions because we don’t understand the fundamentals of asking good questions?

In my recent article on Conversations that Build Bridges, I made the point that creating connection with people who are very different than ourselves requires a commitment to listen. Asking questions that draw people out creates a great opportunity to listen.

Questions and thoughtful answers foster smoother and more effective interactions as well as strengthen rapport and build trust. Research dating back to the 1970s suggests that people have conversations to accomplish some combination of two major goals: information exchange (learning) and impression management (likability). More recent research suggests that asking questions achieves both of these goals.

When Professor Alison Brooks began studying conversations at Harvard Business School years ago, she quickly arrived at a foundational insight: People don’t ask enough questions. In fact, among the most common complaints people make after having a conversation, such as an interview, a first date, or a work meeting, is “I wish [s/he] had asked me more questions” and “I can’t believe [s/he] didn’t ask me any questions.”

For some people, asking questions comes naturally. Their innate curiosity and emotional intelligence (EQ) keep questions on the tip of their tongue. But it’s easy to be tripped up by using the wrong tone of voice or not posing inquiries in an optimal way. The good news is that by asking questions, we naturally improve our EQ, which in turn makes us better questioners. This can start a positive cycle of growth.

Questioning is a powerful tool for unlocking potential in teams. It stirs learning and spurs the exchange of ideas. It creates an atmosphere of creativity, fuels innovation and helps build rapport and trust among team members. It also helps expose blind spots. There’s no better way to discover hidden pitfalls than by asking questions.

“I think that probably the most important thing about our education was that it taught us to question even those things we thought we knew.”

Thabo Mbeki, former President of S. Africa

Could it be that learning to end more sentences with a question mark rather than a period could make a difference in your awareness?

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