What are right questions?
Voltaire said: “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers”. Asking the right question is the foundation for the quality of conversation, depth of thought, problem solving ability and decisions made. But before we get into questions, we need to ensure that we’ll be addressing or solving the right thing! Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg looked at problem identification as the foundation for problem solving in his book “What’s Your Problem?” A helpful resource for defining the problem from which you will determine the right questions to ask.
The problem identified, let’s outline a framework for establishing effective questions and how you can stress test their effectiveness.
Assessing the effectiveness of questions begins with a conscious awareness of the decision-tree branch to which they belong. Every question, implicitly or explicitly, is part of a grouped family of questions and some underlying assumptions (beliefs). Your task is to make that embedded grouping explicit knowledge. In other words, your framing questions are a crucial first step but it’s also an activity that needs consistent stress-checking.
Which questions should you be asking?
Beliefs underlie your questions
Let’s use an example to illustrate the principles in action. It is December 31st and you are contemplating new year resolutions. You have decided that this is finally the year to adopt healthy lifestyle choices. To that end: gone are Friday afternoon pub crawls and all-nighters and in comes the inclusion of fresh vegetables and fruit, cardio twice a week and a weight reduction goal of 5kg (10 lbs). Simple enough…but what are an individual’s underlying assumptions or beliefs in this example which will anchor the lines of questions the individual will ask him or herself?
They may be:
- I’m overweight and out of shape
- People look unfavourably on unhealthy lifestyles hindering career opportunities
- Being overweight endangers life (higher risk of heart disease, cancers, etc)
- Being out of shape is unattractive and hinders romantic prospects
With beliefs defined, let’s tackle how they relate to a branch of questions.
What is the best line of questioning?
The first belief or assumption “I’m overweight and out of shape” should be a matter of fact. We measure weight with a scale and being in shape through a fitness assessment. Of course, I’m simplifying the issue a great deal so that we can focus the discussion on belief systems.
An underlying problem anchored in the belief “People look unfavourably on unhealthy lifestyles which hinders my career opportunities” stimulates line of thinking. The right question becomes: “Will becoming healthy (weight loss and fitness) improve my chance of being promoted to XYZ?”. This question naturally spins off more questions, such as:
- How much weight would I need to lose to improve my promotion prospects?
- Is weight-loss or increasing my fitness a better strategy than other strategies to improve my promotion opportunities?
- What other things could I do to improve my chances?
On the other hand, if it is anchored in the belief that “It’s dangerous to be overweight”, then the question would be better phrased as: “Is the amount of excess weight I carry medically dangerous?” This question in turn may lead to medical literature searches which may morph into new areas of questions, such as:
- What is the likelihood that I will develop heart disease or diabetes?
- What is the best thing I can do to reduce my odds of developing heart disease and diabetes?
If, however, it is anchored in the belief that “Being out of shape is unattractive and hinders romantic prospects”, then it is helpful to think about why you hold onto that belief:
- Does it stem from media portrayals of societal attitudes?
- Is it anchored in how you think people see you or look at you in public?
- Has it developed because of comments made by individuals in your life?
How questions emerge or are framed is often deeply embedded within the individual. It can go right the way down into one’s beliefs and self-esteem as well as one’s relationships in life. Awareness of this helps mitigate tunnel vision or biases.
What else can you do to identify the right questions?
Let me emphasize one final point on the importance of asking the right questions. The question that starts you off not only shapes your search (for the answer to the problem, or for the right information, or the right decision), it also fires up your reticular activating system (RAS).
The RAS is a filter we each have that helps us process information by funnelling relevant information into our consciousness awareness. This increases access to information and also stimulates related areas. For instance the word bread stimulates (or fires up) you to think about jam, butter or peanut butter (depending on what you like). Or, if you purchase a red car, you’re more likely to notice red cars on the road.
By understanding these mechanisms and processes, you can leverage them to ask the right questions (better questions) to effectively solve problems, deepen conversations, support business partners and much more.
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