In January 2019, I will welcome in a new group of Masters students to Digital Research Methods and Design Thinking; two courses that I teach at Goldsmiths, University of London. I get just twelve weeks with each cohort and while I’m trying to teach them as many skills as I can during that time, there is a core skill that I particularly zero in on: how to ask a question.
I realise how absurd this might sound at first, but knowing what to question, how to formulate a question and then how to ask that question is a skill that is never, ever going to date. If anything, trying to find an ‘answer’ in a world flush with information and data, is actually quite difficult to do if you don’t have the right question to begin with.
Not All Questions Are Equal
Like people, different questions have different defining characteristics. Closed questions are those that are usually short, punchy and to the point. These questions seek a simple “Yes” or “No” response. Open questions seek to explore and possibly linger for a while. Open questions are looking for a wide-range of replies. And then there’s the alternative question, the one that is expecting its reply to contain one, two or more options that were presented in the original question.
I agree that there is no such thing as a stupid question but it’s also true that some questions are better, more powerful and more transformative than others. Having an understanding of the kind of answer(s) you’re seeking, will help you to decide which question format to reach for. Football coach Lou Holtz got his team to prioritise decisions by asking, “What is important now?” That’s a great open question.
Out of the many things that language allows us to do – express ourselves, connect with others, negotiate meaning with the world around us – it’s the pondering, musing and curiosity of questioning that I believe we should celebrate the most, if for no other reason than for its sheer versatility.
Questions can start the pursuit of a mission. Held at the end of a class, lecture or workshop, questions can help to consolidate learning. Hal Gregerson, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center has even founded a new brainstorming technique, Question Burst, based on asking questions instead of soliciting answers and ideas. I’ve used this creative technique before, and seriously, it works; the results are extraordinary. More people participate, the energy in the room lifts and we leave with tens of questions rather than a handful of ideas. Another question-centered method is the Five Whys technique often used in Design Thinking. First developed by Toyota Industries’ founder, Sakichi Toyoda, it gets you to ask “why?” to responses five times in a row. This single, most curious of words allows you to move deeper into the motivations for people doing and thinking the things they do. Simple, yet surprisingly effective. The added bonus of this technique is that you also get to be five-years-old again!
When you give people permission to question, you give them the opportunity to suggest a new perspective. Often, this helps to jump over the hurdles of cognitive biases that often colour suggested ideas. You’re also able to shift the state of power between individuals by giving everyone a chance to participate and not simply those who are confident enough to share an idea. Asking a question, instead of pitching an idea, is easier for many.
Questions And Power
Just a note on power now that its arrived on the scene. We don’t think about this enough when we’re having conversations with others, that is, considering if we hold a position of privilege in that dialogue. Power is at play between individuals holding a conversation; the individual asking the question/s holds the power, while the one providing the answers is usually in a place of vulnerability. We all know what that feels like to be on the receiving end of a stream of questions. Even the metaphor we use, standing in the firing line, alludes to being wounded by the metaphorical attack. However, not many of us think of the relationship between power and questions enough when we ourselves are getting ready to ask one. It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider this as how the question is asked could change how it is answered. Channeling our energies from interrogation mode to humble inquiry can not only help to cultivate more meaningful dialogue but perhaps more ambitiously, change how we choose to build relationships; on a bedrock of curiosity instead of control and influence.
It feels fitting to end this month’s post with a question. So I’ll leave you with this one:
What will your next question be?