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You Are What You Ask

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” - Socrates

What did Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, and Shakespeare have in common?

According to Sobel and Panas, they all knew how to ask powerful questions.

In my class or in coaching, I can always tell who the interested, experienced audience is by listening to the questions they ask. Living in a world of answers, we often forget our mind stretches to find answers only to the questions it is asked.

Therefore, good questions are far more important than answers.

Questions challenge our thinking and motivate us to look for newer answers. In ancient times, philosophers like Socrates used questions extensively to bring change. Their questions were teaching tools, and a means to change indelibly the people around them. Even today, a stream called Socratic teaching is a teaching method executed through questioning.

It is no accident that the most famous dramatic passage in all of literature is built around a single question; “to be, or not to be, that is the question,” says Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, as he contemplates life and death.

Why is the question a very scary villain in our conversations? Why do people not like them? In fact, most will avoid asking and answering even the most mundane questions.

Why is asking a difficult part of a conversation?

The true intention of a question is to make people curious enough to know the answer. To move away from feeling the problem to analysing the problem.

Dr. Marilee Adams, author of the book Change your Questions, Change your Lives, calls this the learner and the judger mindset. Asking questions from the judger mindset will neither solve the problem nor will it facilitate any collaboration.

The difficulty arises when we don’t ask questions from the place of curiosity but from many other unfavourable locations.

Questions asked to judge or test a person are often very toxic to the relationship.

Consider the conversation -

“Why have you not broken down the costs in slide three?”

This is not a question. It is an accusation. The judgment that something is being either hidden, or not worked properly, is clear in the question. The implicit question here is

“Have you really done the calculation or is it a guess? Or are you hiding something?”

Such questions will immediately garner defensive answers. But these questions pose as rationally curious ones in the corporate world. However much you would like to respond with rudeness, a better strategy would be to rephrase the question in your mind, and respond to the more positive formulation. Respond to the question, not the accusation.

Questions asked to express disagreement or to even exert power.

Consider the question,

“Can you give me one good reason why I should agree to this?”

It is a question filled with power and distinctly shows disagreement. In fact, these types of questions should come with a danger signal of some kind, as even after answering them well; the people involved will not leave the table with satisfaction, but with ego and pride alone. These are actually controlling statements masquerading as questions. The response the questioner wants may not be an answer but an argument. A good argument sometimes is great and refreshing although not reacting to the statement but softly responding will get better results.

Interview Conversations

Sometimes in conversations, we feel like we are being interviewed for a job. A series of questions hits us and makes the whole experience awkward. Consider this conversation-

“Hi, when did to move to this city?”

“Hi, it’s been a couple years now.”

“So how do you find the change?”

“Not bad. We expected the differences”

“So where are the kids studying?”

“At ABC school”

“Where are you working?”

“In an IT firm”

“So where do you live now?”

This is not a conversation. It is more like someone is noting facts about me for some purpose and that is scary. We see such interrogations at social events and it is often frustrating. No one likes being questioned so much. Instead, the conversation could have taken off after the first question into how the city is improving or on any other common ground.

The problem the questions above, are that they were not asked with the intent to know the answer. Therefore, they are not really powerful questions.

The Powerful Questions - Generative questions

In business and in life, the powerful questions are the ones that actually get results. Questions like “How is it going?” may sound positive but are too vague for the listener to tell you any of the problems. Such vague questions are typically answered with vague sentences like “All set boss. We are great.”

When the deadlines are not met, other vague questions will follow,

“Why is the deadline slipping?”

Vague answer—“We are working on it, we will be done by today”

In all these questions, the person who asked the question has had no concrete answer. This is not empowerment. Powerful questions get into the heart of the matter, and ensure that the answers given are also concrete.

In Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, psychologist, mediator and teacher Marshall Rosenberg describes how he participated in a mediated conflict in the Middle East/West Asia which seemed completely intractable. When the parties met together for the first time, the leaders were furious, each accusing the other side of inciting violence. Through careful and sensitive questioning by the facilitators, they were able to establish that both sides genuinely sought safety and peace so that their children and future generations did not have to live in fear of murder or violence.

Questions when asked the right way—the generative questions—pave way to achieve immediate goals and sometimes give us lifetime of insight.
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