Now, that’s a good question.
Well, to start, let’s chat about a little thing called curiosity. To this day, where exactly curiosity originates continues to perplex science. One camp of psychology believes in the drive theory ― an inherent, internal drive from within us humans, much like the drive for hunger or thirst. The other camp believes in the incongruity theory which claims that our curiosity is motivated when we’re presented with something that doesn’t fit into our understanding of the world.
Regardless of where curiosity truly originates, one thing is for certain ― we are curious creatures. If you think about it, as soon as we are able to formulate questions, we ask them. Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Why does it rain? I’m sure we’ve all met a toddler with an insatiable sense of curiosity that stumped us with a question or two. Preschool kids ask their parents as many as 300 questions a day or about 40,000 questions between the ages of 3-5. You could say that young children possess epistemophilia. I know this may seem like a scary, intimidating word, but really all it means is “a love for knowledge”. It’s actually a pretty amazing word.
When we get a little older, however ― say, around middle school ― we basically stop asking questions altogether. Why? Well, many theories claim that children receive the message from adults that giving answers is more valuable than asking questions. Common sense would say there is some truth to this claim since, well, adults usually don’t ask many of the right questions to anyone, especially themselves.
Why do we ask questions?
Well, the list is endless really. We ask questions to acquire knowledge, eliminate confusion, guide a conversion, and, most importantly, to enable a person to discover answers for themselves. We can teach you, and you can regurgitate exactly what you learned. That’s cool and all, but even a very well-instructed chimpanzee can do that. What makes you, as a human being, unique is your ability to question ― everything. Questions are, quite literally, what has moved humanity forward since the beginning of time.
Many people out there will teach you what to think, but we want to teach you how to think. Learning how to think all boils down to the quality of the questions you ask. When you start asking yourself the right questions, you will demystify the unknown and open up an ocean of possibilities. Translation? Things that seemed impossible, will begin to seem very possible. Imagine if some of history’s greatest minds, such as Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison, didn’t ask the questions they did. How would that have changed the course of history?
In a 2009 study called The Millennium Project, researchers listed the top 15 global challenges facing humanity. As suspected, issues like clean water, population and resources, and rich-poor gap appeared on the list. Number nine, however, was quite unexpected ― the capacity to decide. To the degree of global poverty, our inability to filter through a sea of endless information is a global crisis that is holding back humanity from progressing.
The result? The chaos and clutter we experience due to large amounts of information, mixed with the ‘what to think’ teaching model, has created a generation of lazy thinkers. That’s right. It turns out that many of us, when faced with matters that require problem solving and critical thinking, will resort to guessing. When it comes to work environments, in particular, this is extremely problematic because it leads to poor communication amongst team members. In turn, both conflict and stagnation arise.
So, what do top performers, in both work environments and other environments alike, do? It’s simple ― they ask the right questions. Most people only ask questions that are safe, meaning they only surface what is already seen or understood. Their questions only surface what is already known. Top performers, however, ask questions that go deep. They ask questions that move us from reactionary, automatic thinking to deep thinking that inspires creativity and profound ideas. They unmask the unknown and, in turn, spur others into action.
How do you ask a good question?
As it turns out, the difference between a good question and a bad question all comes down to the way you frame your question ― the words you use. In various simulation studies concerning team building and problem solving, people often asked, “What should we do?” This question seemed to invisibly cut off possibility and only present a limited number of options. Teams that asked questions like, “What could we do?”, however, opened up the conversation to a perceivable never-ending list of opportunities. There is, therefore, great power in the words we use within our questions.
Language isn’t the only key to asking good questions. Unshockingly, when faced with good questions that go beyond the surface, we are often taken over by strong emotions ― anxiety, fear, and discomfort. These are natural responses, and top performers ― people who ask good questions ― are people who accept and embrace these emotions. Only when you allow the natural process of feeling insecure and uncomfortable, even for a moment, to occur, can good questions truly flow.
Good questions challenge our biases, surface our beliefs, and, often times, make us realize that we may not know as much as we think we do. These are good things to have happen, because when they do, real learning can and usually does take place. Kids, parents, business people, coaches, and politicians alike can all benefit from breaking through the process of asking good questions. It causes relatedness, understanding, and encourages people to work together to adapt their thinking.
All in all, when it comes to questions, you get what you ask for. In a time where technology is consistently getting better at answering questions, you need to become better at asking questions.