Skip to main content

Good Questions

| June 19, 2018

by Jim Bruce

“True wisdom comes from asking the right questions.”            Clayton Christensen

Two weeks ago, the Tuesday Reading focused on some particularly insightful remarks made by a number of this year’s commencement speakers. Now, whenever you select a very small number of speakers, in this case only nine, from a very large field of individuals who gave commencement speeches in a typical year, over 25,000, you are destined to miss a few gems. I missed at least one from an earlier year which Ned La Celle, MOR Emerging Leaders Program Alumnus, called to my attention.
James Ryan, who will become ninth President of the University of Virginia in October 2018, was the speaker at the Harvard Graduate School of Education 2016 Commencement. At that time, he was Dean of the Faculty of Education and Charles William Eliot Professor of Education at Harvard University. Ryan focused his remarks on the topic of questions and, in particular, on asking very good questions.  (His published remarks along with a video of the entire speech can be found here. An excerpt focusing on his list of five essential questions can be found here.)
Dean Ryan’s graduation speech focused on the beauty and power of good questions, concluding with five essential questions that he encourages each of us to begin to use. On the way to sharing these questions he made two important recommendations:

  1. Each of us needs to cultivate the art of asking good questions. Ryan noted that today we live in a world where everyone both wants instant answers and stands ready to offer their answers and comments at a moment’s notice. This “fire, aim, ready” approach defines a lot of the shallow public discourse we experience today. Ryan argues that we should “resist the temptation to have answers at the ready and spend more time thinking about the right questions to ask.” He notes that “an answer can only be as good as the question asked.” Without asking the right question, you have no hope of getting the right answer. He goes on to say, “Great leaders don’t have all the answers, but they know how to ask the right questions – questions that open up possibilities that, before the question, were unseen.” And, we too can ask such questions, questions whose answer is truly irresistible.
  2. Talking about good questions requires that you acknowledge that there are bad questions. There are more than enough questions that at first glance are bad. Ryan notes, “Whether these questions remain bad, however, often depends on the listener.” If you listen carefully and generously, he argues, you have the power to turn many bad questions into good ones. To do this, you have to recognize the hostile, demeaning questions and separate them from the truly clumsy ones.  The clumsy ones may be motivated by anxiety, or ignorance, or just not knowing how to ask you that sort of question.  Hostile ones often are statements disguised as questions, often meant to be demeaning or designed to trip you up. Ryan says, “Beware of those, denounce them or ignore them as the occasion demands, but let your heart, ears, and mind remain open to all others.” 

Ryan then turns to the five essential questions we should frequently ask ourselves:

  1. “Wait, what?” This is an effective way to ask for clarification. Always ask this before coming to a conclusion or making a decision. It’s a good reminder that it pays to slow down to make sure you truly understand.
  2. “I wonder?” perhaps followed by “why” or “if.” “I wonder why …” is a way to remind yourself to remain curious about all things. Asking “I wonder if …” is a way to start your thinking about how to improve the situation, what you’re working on, the world, …
  3. “Couldn’t we at least …?” This is a question aimed at helping you get unstuck. To begin again. It can enable you to get past a disagreement. It can get you unstuck. It can help you explore options.
  4. “How can I help?” Here you are offering to help and asking for direction. What can I do to help you? It’s a genuine no-strings-attached offer to lend your efforts to the other’s effort.
  5. “What really matters?” To you, to me. This question helps you get to the heart of the matter.

Questions, good questions, need to become a larger part of our conversations. We should not shy away from asking them, from being over curious. And, before we respond to another’s question, we need always to examine it, to make sure we understand the question before we respond.
As you make your way through the coming days, do take the matter of questions seriously. I believe that if you never stop asking and looking for good questions your work will be deeply appreciated, you will help others and be respected for what you do.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Further reading:
James Ryan, Wait, What?  And, Life’s Other Essential Questions, HarperOne, 2017.