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Why Should We Ask Questions?

| March 12, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Kids ask questions in order to learn about the world in which they live. And, sometimes they will answer their own question to show-off what they know – for example, my great-granddaughter holding out a stuffed rabbit and saying “rabbit” – and sometimes they want you to tell them. As they grow older, their questions may give you an opportunity to propose additional questions they might be asking.
For example, Mary Thérèse Durr, a Boston College alum of the leaders program, tells the story of her then 11-year old daughter asking if she could date. The daughter expected an immediate, emphatic “NO.” Instead, MT asked, “What does ‘dating’ mean?” “Talking in the halls and sometimes holding hands” which yielded the response “Yes.” Years later, walking downstairs to go to school in a “short, short, short” skirt, MT asked, “Do you think that’s a good skirt to wear to school?” Defiantly, her daughter answered “yes.” And, all day at school she was uncomfortable wearing that very short skirt. “She never wore it again.”
For children, it’s helpful in their development for them to hear examples of the questions that they might ask themselves and others as they grow, learn, and develop. This is also equally valuable for adults. Asking questions of yourself will cause you to pause and make sure you’ve taken all aspects of the issue at hand into consideration.
Now, kids are much better at asking questions than are adults. No matter where they are or who they are with, they are always asking questions. Mark Suster,entrepreneur turned venture capitalist reports that it’s estimated that 70-80% of kids’ dialogue is question-driven. Some studies have shown that they ask an average of 300 questions a day with a 4-year old averaging 400.Yet, their parent’s, and other adults’, dialogues are only 15-20% question-driven. And, this low percentage appears to be true in all aspects of an adult’s life.
Why is it that when we get older, we stop asking questions? Could it be that:

  • We are afraid to ask.
  • We believe that we already have the answers – “status quo is the way to go.”
  • It’s wise never to challenge decisions.
  • We don’t want to take the time.
  • We don’t want to look dumb by asking.
  • We believe we know all we need to know about the subject.
  • “I just do what I’m told to do.”

Yet, great inventors, scientists, and leaders focused more on questions than answers: Sir Isaac Newton asked, “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” Einstein asked, “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and Alphabet, said “We run this company on questions, not answers.”
So, while we may not aspire to be this profound, what might we do so that we ask more questions and help our team members ask more questions, as well? Here are four suggestions from Steve Goldsteinand Tanveer Nasser.4

  1.  Lead by Example. Goldsteinpoints out that the best way to teach is by example. Throughout history, great leaders have taught by showing or doing, and not by telling. He notes that when you are seen asking questions, questions about “how” and “why,” and not about an individual’s intentions, colleagues will begin to feel more comfortable answering and will begin to ask similar questions of others. And, when you as a leader are willing to admit you don’t have the answer, you empower others to also admit, when they don’t know, that they don’t know.
  2. Focus on Initiative. If we remember why we stopped asking – fear, desire to not look dumb or silly, don’t want to challenge a previous decision, etc. – it helps us focus on a team member’s initiative in asking and not just on the value of the question.So, it’s O.K. if someone chooses to ask a “safe” question. By acknowledging and appreciating the interest shown by asking a question, you help provide an atmosphere where others will feel empowered to ask about other ideas and concerns. It’s been said that “the only bad question is the one not asked.”5
  3. Listen to what’s being asked. All too often the individual responding to a question talks around the subject and fails to answer it. Nasser says that this is the result of a greater focus on formulating an answer to what they thought they were going to be asked than the actual question. When this happens, accept what you heard and take them back to the question you actually asked. By doing this, you encourage the behavior you expect rather than excuse the behavior you experienced.
  4. Be patient. Time and Practice Is Key. Just because most of us have abandoned the habit of asking questions, it does not mean that we’ve lost the ability. Asking questions, listening to the question being asked, and responding are a set of practices, ones that are extremely important to each individual being able to do his or her work most effectively. We know that building new practices and restoring ones that have fallen into disuse will take time. Doing this needs to be a priority, encouraging greater participation and involvement of everyone in the work that is being done. Developing an environment where questions from everyone are expected and encouraged will provide unique insights and understandings that will make each individual’s and their organization/s work more effective.

It’s important that we each learn how to ask questions that are effective, that inspire us to think in new ways, to expand our range of vision, and to enable us to more effectively contribute to the endeavors in which we are involved. Perhaps you’ll take some time to reflect on this and begin this new practice today. And, as a check, you might ask yourself at the end of the day, what was the most important question you didn’t ask that day and why did you not ask that question.
Make it a great week you and those you lead.
.  . .  .  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.
References and Notes:

  1. Mark Suster, Asking Questions More Effectively
  2. Telegraph Staff, Mothers Asked Nearly 300 Questions a Day, Study Finds, The Telegraph, March 2019.
  3. Steve Goldstein, How to Get People to Ask Questions, Steve Goldstein Blog. 
  4. Tanveer Nasser, How to Encourage Your Employees to Ask More Questions, Toolbox | HR, 2011.
  5. While it’s often been said that “the only bad question is the one not asked,” there are questions that stifle discussion and have a negative effect on others, and these should be avoided.