Volume 17 Number 4 - April 2, 2019

In The Form Of a Question, Please

The long running TV game show Jeopardy requires contestants respond with the right question, not the right answer. Many have been dinged for replying in answer format. Why is it unnatural to think in terms of questions?

Consider that age during which children ask every question under the sun, and parents work to put an end to that frustrating behavior. The child is asking questions we adults can't answer. Why is the sky blue? Most of us can't answer that, and the child doesn't really want a scientific answer anyway. We rarely think to respond with "why do you think it is blue?" or "and sometimes it is gray; why do you think that is?"

Now move on to school. Teachers ask the questions and students are rewarded for knowing the answers. Adolescents and teenagers are not encouraged to ask questions in that formational learning environment.

And then we go to work. Again, the boss has the answers. If he didn't have all the answers, why would he be the boss?

But just as when we are asked to explain the color of the sky and can't without the help of the internet, bosses can't answer all questions. And we shouldn't expect or want them to.

What we should expect is that all questions from all directions are appreciated and encouraged. We don't learn by being told; we learn by thinking, analyzing and gaining understanding. From questioning.

An employee shouldn't need to ask the boss what job is next. A system of information (often visual) can provide that. Those processes can help employees understand the system and how and why certain decisions are made. Learning.

Requests for information repeatedly made by employees should be addressed through a system of decision-making and information that doesn't require the regular involvement of the boss. These are systemic questions, not specialized questions.

You, as the leader or manager, should be asking insightful questions that help coworkers improve their thinking skills and learn. In the next conversation you have with a coworker, observe how questions are asked, or are not. How is information and thinking exchanged? Is it as productive as it can and should be? Consider the "teach a man to fish" parable as you move forward.

I took an improv class to further develop my thinking skills. One of the exercises involved two lineups with the two individuals facing each other at the head starting the conversation. The first asked a question of the other; the other had to reply with a question and keep the conversation progressing. When a participant couldn't quickly respond with a relevant question, they moved to the end of the line. Talk about humbling. For each of us it was much more natural to answer than to ask.

Imagine yourself in this exercise. I ask you "where did you get that shirt?" And your question back to me is...? And my question back to you could be...?

Asking powerful questions is a muscle we need to develop, and we do that only through practice. Defaulting to giving answers is much less productive.

Do you want to ask better questions?

Who could help you improve?

When will you start?

The Starting Pistol

"Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers."

The Tape

Rebecca Morgan:
"Is there a better way to learn or teach than by asking good questions?"

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