“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” ~ Chinese proverb
“Who questions much, shall learn much, and retains much” ~ Francis Bacon
We have evolved to ask questions, to be curious. Think about a three year old, who after learning words and some phrases, begins to ask WHY, WHY, WHY. Asking questions, from the beginning, is how we learn. Asking good and enough questions is how we continue to learn and grow throughout our lives. It is the way we gather information to make the decisions and choices that guide us. And it is the way we gather information to form opinions about not only ourselves, but others. It is questions and inquiry that lead to innovation, discovery and things moving forward. Questions are the basis for getting to know people, starting relationships, gaining knowledge, expressing empathy, showing respect, solving problems, gaining clarity, and resolving conflict.
Given that asking questions is one of the most profound ways we are human, why do we stop asking them? Why do we phrase questions that are actually statements or opinion, or focus on assumption and speculation? Maybe the animosity and polarization we see in our world is because we forgot to be open and ask questions. What are we so afraid of? To some, asking questions signals a lack of knowledge or power or shows weakness. But let’s face it, we don’t know everything. We can’t. And sometimes pretending like we do just makes us sound untruthful or inauthentic.
We are answer seekers and getting answers is awesome, especially when they relate to our most persistent or confounding questions. But answers can also get in the way. Once we’re convinced that we have the answer to a question, it’s easy to stop looking for more answers. And when we stop asking, we stop learning. The range of possible actions becomes limited, narrowed. If the answer or solution we found doesn’t work as well as we’d like, we stay stuck with our problems.
When we stop asking questions it is easier to become polarized or dug in. The best strategy to open up dialogue in a polarized context is to ask questions. By asking self-reflective, open-ended questions, you show respect. When we consider fundamental questions about life we are going to come up with answers that are different from others and some will resent this fact. This resentment is one source of prejudice and bias. If there were more tolerance for more answers or different answers, there would be less hatred and less antagonism in the world.
Instead of latching onto one answer, we can search for more. Instead of being content with the first or easiest options that come to mind, we can keep looking. Even when we’re convinced that we’ve finally handled a problem or formed an opinion we can brainstorm and refine our thinking until we find additional solutions, more data, and better knowledge. When we look for more answers, we open ourselves up to possibilities—new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Like children learning to walk, we experience the joy of discovery.
The key is not only in asking questions, but asking ones that are empowering. Certain types of questions have power. They can focus our attention and even change the way we feel. They can prompt us to make choices and take action. We can always ask different questions, better questions. The quality of these questions can determine the quality of our choices and actions. You have heard the expression-garbage in, garbage out. Basically, what comes out can be no better than what we put in. Our minds kind of work like computers. Feed it a question and it will obediently flash us the answer. And our minds will do this with any question, without regard for the quality, effectiveness, or value of the question. So, yes, there are bad questions, and sometimes those are the ones we ask ourselves.
In any situation, we can ask ourselves questions that empower us instead of asking those that set us up for failure or disappointment. Take the person who gets some surprising news from her accountant that she owes 2K n taxes when the previous year she received a return. If she asks questions like: “Why do things like this always happen to me? “; “Does the government have it in for me?”; “Why work so hard if the government is just going to take my money away?” It is likely the answers will be: “You’re jinxed.”; “Yes, the people at the IRS are out for your money.”; “Don’t work so hard; it’s not worth it.” There’s a problem with these answers—and the questions that preceded them. All of them promote a victim mentality. They presuppose that someone is out there waiting to “get” her and that there’s little she can do about it. That’s hardly an empowering view of life.
With a different set of questions, things could go differently. She could ask: “How can I avoid this in the future?”; “What is great about having this problem?” Those questions are bound to yield answers such as: “My taxes increased because I made a lot more money last year than I did the year before.”; “In the future, I’m going to set aside an extra amount each month to pay my taxes.” With these questions and answers, she’s drawn empowering lessons from her experience.
We can also ask questions that promote having a shared experience with those with whom we share the planet instead of those that set us apart from others. Asking questions is the only way to confront stereotypes and prejudices based on misinformation. And the main way of testing and challenging our own assumptions. Asking questions also allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to have empathy. This perspective taking can reduce actions based on stereotypes. Studies have shown asking ourselves questions such as: “How does that other person feel?”, “what are they thinking?”, and “What are they experiencing?” leads to less bias. Inquiry leads to empathy and that powerful combination promotes communication and understanding.
The asking of good, thoughtful and empowering questions not only keeps us learning and growing, but also gives us the opportunity to better ourselves and better the lives of others. The world changes quickly and there is always new information. So it is imperative we make it a habit to ask questions. Just like when we were children and kept asking the questions, WHY, WHY, WHY.