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Perhaps We Need More Questions Instead of Answers

We live in a world that is in love with ANSWERS. 

  • We want the answer, and we want it now.
  • We don’t want to be in a position of not knowing (heaven forbid!).
  • We prefer the answer to be easy, neat, and as painless as possible.

Yet, despite this quest for easy, fast, and simple answers, our problems seem to multiply rather than diminish. 

Perhaps instead of more ANSWERS, we need to get much better at QUESTIONS.

There is a certain magic that occurs with compelling questions. The ones that you can’t pop out an easy reply, That are not answered by a simple yes or no. That linger in your mind and in your conversations over time. 

I vividly recall bringing a panel of consultants into my Purdue capstone course on consulting. The students had all been tasked with bringing questions. Most were the same old same old. Things like how did you prepare, what are your biggest challenges, what were you surprised about, or what advice would you share with us. 

And then, a student raised his hand and asked a question that caused me and each of the panelists to catch their breath. It was a dig down deep question without space for a glib answer. It was an “I’ve never thought about that, but that is an important thing to explore.”

Two of the panelists had come from out of town and were staying at my home. That question continued to be explored as we walked to the car, as we ate dinner, and as we gathered in the living room afterward. That is the power of a great question!

When you first pose a great question, there may be an instant level of discomfort. Or a deep pause as people ponder their reply. You may experience someone diverting attention to something fluffier or easier. Yet there are rewards to sticking with the probe and the uncomfortableness. They  include:

  • Opening our thinking to new perspectives and ways of thinking
  • Going deeper into a situation and beyond the obvious
  • Sparking innovation and new ideas
  • Allowing us to go beyond the surface and to the heart of the matter
  • Stopping us from jumping to the first thought, which is often the easiest, most obvious, and safest, but often is the least effective
  • Enabling us to hear different thoughts from others

There is an art to using questions in this way. First of all, you must get comfortable with “not knowing.” You also must trust that answers will emerge, even if the path to them is messy. You have to slow down and let thoughts percolate. You must invite others into the conversation, creating a safe space where each person can speak through thoughts without fear of judgment or confrontation. 

I would remiss if I didn’t provide some examples of the types of questions I’m advocating for, so here goes:

  • When have we faced something similar in the past? What did we learn from that experience?
  • Setting the question of resources aside, what would an optimal solution look like?
  • If you had a magic wand, what would you use it for in this situation?
  • What if we were successful beyond our wildest dreams?
  • What is our contribution to this current situation?
  • Where have we failed to act, and what are the consequences of that failure?
  • What are we most afraid of in this situation?
  • What risks might we face? How real or likely are they?
  • What is the most important conversation this team needs to have but is avoiding?
  • What if we did nothing?
  • If we chose to do only one thing, what would that be?
  • What choices do we have in this situation?
  • How much will this matter five years from now?

 

As you might suspect, I am a collector of compelling questions. So please drop questions that you have found helpful in the comment question.

And if you’d like to learn to use questions to open up innovation and fresh thinking, let’s talk about Evergreen Leadership’s Questions Only Retreat. We’ll work with you to create a safe space for your team to explore, create, and innovate. In this retreat, your team will use questions to explore a real-life dilemma or challenge – and learn the process and power of great questions in ambiguous or complex situations. You can learn more here.

6 Responses

  1. Hi Kris, Just a couple of ways to ask the type of question you point out that can result in that deep pause and thought process. Do you think it’s possible to have a truly original thought about —insert the subject here— in todays world?? Or, When was the last original thinking done in regard to – insert the subject here- that impacted todays situation?? I enjoy reading your “work” as it causes me to think deeper. I also “ steal with pride” from Here to discuss current work issues that our adult kids, and grandkids bring up in their work life. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I think it is possible for “original” thought – not on a global scale, but definitely on an individual level. Questions like these almost always enable me to see things differently. Perhaps not “original” but new to my way of thinking. And you are one of the best of asking really good questions.

  2. Hi Kris,

    Thanks for writing this – questions can have tremendous power (both positively and negatively-in the times it feels like an interrogation). One of my favorite questions is: “What makes you say that?” – I’ve found it is a gently way to invite them to share more of their thinking w/o putting them on the defensive. Happy questioning! Elise

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