Asking good questions
What we find depends on what we search for, and so our questioning is the helmsman of our lives ... it quite literally sets the direction. I can't think of anything that shapes our lives and our organisations so much as the questions we ask ourselves, refuse to ask, or never think of asking.
Questions are such an everyday part of our internal thought processes and conversation that are mostly unaware of them. What I'd like to do here is look at how we ask questions so we can use them consciously and wisely to steer our lives and the groups we form.
Here are four little practices we can use to become more aware and harness the power of questions:
- Use open questions
Most questions subtly maintain the status quo, but we can choose to use open, expansive questions that invoke what is not known. All true progress, evolutionary progress if you like, happens when we ask questions that stretch into the unknown... that point to the new.
In our organisations our everyday conversations tend to become customised and optimised over time..... Once we get used to each other and our ideas gain consensus then we tend to develop our own little language quirks and terminology that we all understand. We've probably all had the experience of stepping into a new school or business for the first time and having the feeling of not only not fitting in, but feeling awkward and perhaps a little 'stupid' in our first conversations until we assimilate the culture and get to know what people really mean when they say things.
There is nothing wrong with this in itself...it helps us communicate and get things done efficiently... we understand each other and our language reinforces this understanding. The problem is that the more optimised our group's conversational language becomes the more isolated we tend to be from the people, the conversations, and the ideas that could disrupt or discredit our own. We cut ourselves off from the very source of oxygen we need to thrive.
A closed question such as 'how can we best serve our customers' reinforces the status quo whereas an open question brings on the new. For example .... 'how can we engage in conversations that enable us to better understand the needs of our clients/market/world?' or 'who else can we talk to that thinks differently to us?'
Open questions reach out and connect. As in anything in life, whatever becomes isolated inevitably withers and dies; but the more we can get a sense of our connectedness the more opportunity there is for renewal, for learning and for growth... and the more healthy we become.
- Question the unquestioned
Many of us go through our lives without really understanding why we do things. Whenever your answer to the question 'why are you doing this' is 'because I want to' then step back and ask yourself this question - 'but why do I want to?' .This question might on the face of it seem silly but it can help us gain valuable insights.
Let's look at this question a little deeper -
Is it because I really want to or because I feel I ought to? .If the answer is 'because you feel you ought to' then you might decide to stop doing it and go do what you want. On the other hand you may decide, for whatever reason, to carry on as you were... but at least you do now recognise it as a choice that you make, and you are no longer fooled into thinking it's 'because I want to'. Recognising that there is a choice is the first step for many in exercising their own free will.
Is it me that I am doing this for or someone else? .Sometimes, if we ask this question and give ourselves enough quite time to hear the answer we hear distant echoes of our parent's, teacher's or long forgotten relative's hopes and fears.
[you fill in the blanks]
Is this something my __________ would have expected me to do?
Do I avoid __________ because I fear it would upset __________?
Am I getting back at my ________ for doing this-_________ to me?
Am I proving to ___________ that I can __________?
I'm sure you get the idea. Anything we do where we don't get a deep and profound sense of well-being can be grist for this type of reflective questioning.
- Question the assumptions behind our questions
Often there is a deeper question or yearning that our superficial questions mask.
The following example uses a 'deep and meaningful' question I often come across in my feed-reader but the principle applies at any level. This reasoning may or may not be true, I just use it to illustrate the principle:-
When we ask question such as 'what is my purpose in life?' we ask from the perspective of 'me'. The assumption here is that life is about 'me', but what if it isn't? If life isn't about 'me' then maybe a more appropriate questions might be, 'What is life's purpose?' or 'what is this thing I call 'me'? Maybe if we had answers to these more fundamental questions then our questioning would follow a different tack. Perhaps we'd then ask, 'How can my life be an expression of life's purpose?' or 'How can I more openly express who I really am?'.
Struggling to get good answers to questions is often be a good indicator that the underlying assumptions are flawed. If this is the case then the question we asked is meaningless. Examining our assumptions enables us to step back and ask more fundamental questions, to simplify things and to get to root causes. This is always where the treasure lies -- where the most powerful answers are to be found.
- Ask questions that point in the direction of where you want to go rather than where you've been.
We tend to get more of what we focus on so it's always a good idea to focus on solutions rather than problems.
The most powerful questions of all
The most generative, life-affirming questions are usually the ones we are most scared to ask - the ones we are afraid we might not like the answer to. Maybe it to do with a relationship; maybe its to do with letting go of something we feel gives a level of security or comfort so we can move on again; maybe it's to do with a feeling of doubt or unease ..... 'why is it I don't feel alive and the world is my oyster like I did in my teens?' Once we've attained a modicum of 'success' or 'security' in life there's often a tendency to avoid the uncomfortable questions .. 'better to not go there than risk losing what I've already got'
If life does have a purpose then I think it is to help us learn and grow, to help us become more fully aware of who we are and what we are capable of. If this is true, then it might explain why life has a way of giving us a gentle nudge (unless we ignore it of course, and need a slap instead!) when we start to get too 'comfortable' ... a way of encouraging us to keep moving forward and accept even greater things. It seems paradoxical that safety can be found in the unknown, but I think it's in asking these difficult questions that helps us to take the next step, even when we have no idea what lies ahead... but when we do this life seems to support us and magnify our little efforts.
Here's a couple of 'difficult' questions to give you a feel for what we're talking about:
"What is the question that I have not yet had courage to ask in my life"?, is a good one to kick things off.
And here's one you'll probably shy away from asking: "What it is that I find attractive about suffering?"
For a business or group of people, good questions can be, 'What questions do we feel uncomfortable asking around here?' or 'What are the questions that never seem to get asked?'
One last question
Seeing as this post is about questions it seems fitting to end it with a question. Here is a way for you to see into your future. Simply pay attention to the answer to this one question:
'What is the question on your lips when you first open your eyes in each morning?'
If the answer you receive troubles you (and if there is no question simply pay attention to that fact too) then you might like to ask this question,
"What is the question that my heart is leading me to ask?" and then help yourself receive the answer by being willing to hold this question without the need to fill the unknowingness with an answer based on past experience or what you think you know.
Any questions? ;-)