Got questions?

When I was growing up, I envied the little boy next door. His mom asked him questions. Would you like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or soup for lunch?  Will you spend the afternoon reading a book or playing?

My mom told me how it was going to be.

While I don’t think she intended it this way, her factual style of asking and telling was a good life lesson for dealing with bosses who managed by command-and-control and wanted answers straight up.

As I grew older, the questions my dad asked became different. He asked lots of “either/or,” “have you thought about,” “how/why,” and “help me understand” questions. Dad said he wanted to make sure I thought things through. He prepared me to work for bosses who wanted thoughtful converging or diverging answers and options.

A few years into my career, I worked for a boss who asked a whole new style of questions. He tested both logic and emotion. His rational was like that of Socrates, who was “well known for using questioning to probe the validity of an assumption, analyze the logic of an argument, and explore the unknown.” That boss wanted to know how we were going to achieve both quality and quantity or how we would meet our short-term goals without jeopardizing our long-term position. Answering his questions required deeper thought and analysis of the big picture.

Only years later did it hit me that these individuals had given me the gift of a well-rounded repertoire of different types of questions.

The key to wisdom is this: constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth. ~Peter Abelard

Questions matter.

Questions lead to answers, help us discover meaning and eliminate confusion, or point to hidden agendas. They help us reflect, develop critical thinking skills, or clarify intent and understanding. Questions help us make sense of our surroundings, distinguish fact from fiction, or define our purpose. Questions provoke lively debate, satisfy our curiosity, and prompt us to assess our assumptions.

A good question can disrupt, inspire, show humility, and open closed doors.

Research done by O.C. Tanner Institute showed that “asking the right question increased the odds of someone’s work having a positive effect on others by 4.1 times. It made the outcome 3.1 times more likely to be deemed important, 2.8 times more likely to create passion in the doer, and 2.7 times more likely to make a positive impact on the organization’s bottom line.” That’s powerful stuff.

He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever. ~Chinese proverb

So why do we ask questions less and less as we get older?

Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas with Mu Sigma polled 200 of their clients on question asking. Clients who had children estimated that 70-80% of their kids’ dialogues with others were comprised of questions. However, those same clients guessed that only 15-25% of their own interactions consisted of questions. Tom and Neethi attribute the reduction in the number of questions asked by the adults to working in a you-need-to-get-it-done-yesterday business environment.

Their advice? “Leaders should encourage people to ask more questions, based on the goals they’re trying to achieve, instead of having them rush to deliver answers. In order to make the right decisions, people need to start asking the questions that really matter.”

Asking questions that really matter + actively listening to the answer + critically reviewing what’s been shared = a good life practice.