A Question

Do you value the questions in your life ? Or do you focus on answers alone ? Are all questions created equal ? Today let us explore our questioning skills, and build ourselves an arsenal of intelligent questions.

There is one particular formula in Physics that I learnt in school. I can explain this one formula to you in great detail at any time of the day….even in the middle of the night if you wake me up and ask. At this point, you would ask…so what makes this formula so special ?

The Why ?

In that particular class, our Teacher, Mr. Narendran, restricted himself to asking Questions. Our class reached the answer all by ourselves. It would have taken Sir five minutes to Explain and Illustrate the formula for Momentum. In that case, my brain would have retained it till the examination. He chose to give us 45 minutes to lead us there. After two and a half decades, I can still recount in detail that particular class and all its lessons.

We look around and see that the answer-ers are the more favored. In the rush of meeting a deadline or finishing a chapter, the brownie points are saved for the conformers, not the disrupt-ors. But then these are rather low hanging fruits.

Let us look at a much loftier example. Someone did ask why the apple fell downward. Active questioning is undeniably powerful.

The right questions can answer for the difference between delivering a wrong project on-time, on-budget and losing the client, or going back to the table with newly learnt facts and earning the client’s long term respect and confidence.

We always circle back to Socrates when we talk about Questions. Let us go back further today.

I looked up the etymology of the word “Prashna”. To those of us, coming from the various Indian Backgrounds, it means Question. It is, however, the stand-in word for “a lesson” , too, in the ancient texts. Sanskrit throws us a googly here…using the same word for a question, a task and a lesson.

At some level, my Physics Teacher knew all this.

So why do we not ask questions anymore ? Many reasons. Let me highlight the most common one.

The pedestal we set our Authority figure on. A parent, a teacher, a lead… they are expected to know everything. We are not used to the Uncertainty of a “let me find out and get back to you on this” or an “intelligent question…can we find the answer together ?”.

One of the first things we learn in our schools is not to put our teachers in a tight spot.

The What-Ifs

Don’t you think we need this change ? To bring in a questioning culture ? To bring the lessons of “Life Long Learning” to our everyday, and extend that courtesy to both sides of every valid question.

Let us look at a few applications

I re-learnt the power of this tool in training practice a few days ago. I used a few slides with a single question on each. After 20-30 seconds of nerve-wracking silence on both sides, my trainees started un-muting themselves and answering. They did me proud. They insisted on debating amongst themselves before I opened up any of my answer slides. When they found out that they had achieved options and answers more suited to their work all by themselves, the energy level in the room went high. I was thanked, for leading them on to find their own answers.

Take a corporate situation like a feedback meeting. Let us make it a negative feedback, the more difficult one. How about asking the why behind any behavior or situation rather than judging a person or a personality ? Takes the weight off both the giver and the receiver. No demoralizing, no de-motivation, no finger-pointing and no toxic grudges.

Let us say we are pitching for a training session. Again, asking the right questions to measure the expected outcomes of the training is the first step. In most cases, I could feel the HR or the L&D really getting on board with their skin in the game.

The How

All of this brings us to the quality of the Questions we ask. Sometimes we ask questions to start off an argument. Because I am in the process of having a very bad day and why should you go free ?

Sometimes the questions are carefully sculpted to bring out and showcase our rather sharp intelligence. Not to take the discussion further.

How do we avoid these traps ? Where are the intelligent questions lurking ?

To start with, there are the 3 questions.

The Why. The background, the supporting facts. The reason why things are the way they are.

The Why behind the Why ? Unless we understand the validity and value of any current situation, we cannot truly better it. The Whys form the Root.

Then come the What-Ifs. What are the changes, the innovations, or the disruptions that come to mind? What would you do differently than yesterday ? What would you do differently from the next person ? Where is your personal touch ?

Why the What-ifs ? To add more value. To leave your mark. To bring in a so-far unconsidered angle. The What-ifs are your big blue Sky.

Then comes the How, the last of the three. How does it translate into your everyday ? How will you deal with the constraints, the risks ? The Hows will decide which of your What-ifs is achievable. The How is the Ground on which you walk.

Approaching any working system with a framework of three questions is a practice that will start you off towards a great adventure with truly great questions.

Dig deep with your questions…they open up your own mind and the world around you.

The simple, Yes/No questions are more suited to open or end a conversation. The true explorations come with the what/when/why/how/where/who. These are the questions that lean-in on our brain, and say “You Sleepy-head, You Cognitive Miser, I’m taking you out for a run today. Go, get your shoes on.”

Sometimes, we do not ask because we do not know how to. We were trying to be helpful, but we have been told our questions were rude. That may be to do with the language. In many languages, the different words for “You” convey the level of respect that we aim for.

While translating to the single “You” in English, we overlook this loss. Adding a Please might suffice… but at some tables the Please is just the price of admission. There are many techniques on dealing with this one. The use of modals (Could you please), the use of past tense (I was wondering if..), the use of vague words (Is it quite alright if..?) and in the more formal and complex situations, the use of may, might or even negatives are the a few.

Dear Reader, having journeyed with you so far in the Question-Land, I leave you now. Right in front of three brightly painted red doors. They open to the Whys, What-Ifs and Hows of your life. Open them to step into an exciting beyond.

And do let me know of any questions that come up… we can learn together.

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