Let me ask you this……

23 02 2013

When I was at secondary school, there was a girl in my year called Alison. There were a lot of very clever girls in my year (it was a girls’ school so no clever boys), but Alison was acknowledged as the brightest of us all. Not only was she academically clever, she was also musical, sporty, unassuming (her parents made her ride her bike to school every day), obedient (she wore a helmet years before it became the law) and most importantly of all, nice. And as well as being very very bright, she also worked very hard. We might have liked her less if she had aced all the tests without working at it…except that she was also very nice.

Years before NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) became a “thing”, I knew about modelling – paying attention to the way others behave in order to take on qualities that you admire. And what I noticed about Alison was that she asked a lot of questions in class.

Alison’s question-asking meant a few things. Firstly, she was paying attention and understanding what was being said enough to formulate coherent questions. Secondly, she was adapting the information to make sure it “fit” into the way she thought about things. So if she was told information in one style and that style wasn’t her dominant style, she would ask questions in order to understand it from her dominant view. And thirdly, that she had a high level of curiosity, which exceeded the information she was being told.

And so I learned that asking questions was a good way of learning.

Fast forward two decades, to another question-asker. This time my boss. Now this woman taught me a lot about strategic thinking and organisational thinking. Again, the key was questions, this time questions to lead and direct people, questions that reframed the problem, and hence the way people were thinking about the problem, jump-started them in a new “track”, questions that gave people short-cut ways of memorising and understanding what they were doing at each level of strategic planning.

The key was….

1. Mission statements: WHY? (and sometimes WHAT?) (Why do we exist, what do we want to achieve / what do we do?)

2. Strategic / executive level : WHAT? (what are we doing?)

3. Operational level : How? (give that exec have told operations WHAT to do or WHAT goal to achieve, operations needs to sort out HOW they will do it / HOW they will achieve the goal.

The power of asking the right question goes further. A well-chosen and well-timed question can pull people out of analysis paralysis (what should we do, why do you want us to do that, what are the alternatives, what if we make a mistake, what are the pros and cons of each possibility, etc) and into HOW are you going to do this? This question skims over the quandary and directs thoughts to action. It can also empower people who aren’t sure if they should do something by essentially directing them to do it. Devil’s advocate questions can open up new expanses, and break down the barriers that contain thought, give permission to consider the (previously) unthinkable.

Does questioning work for you?

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2 responses

23 02 2013
empty chair (@Janet741)

Traditional teaching at best didn’t encourage such thinking and at worst actively discouraged curiosity, seeing questioning as somehow impertinent. Children were rewarded for regurgitating accurately what was taught and many who were good at this then failed dismally in workor tertiary ed environments that required lateral thinking. They had never been taught to think. The pendulum then swung to the opp extreme for many – they then had no foundations on which to build their hypotheses. One thing I have learned in both my science and journalism is question everything -secure people won’t be threatened and the outcome can always be improved.

23 02 2013
Mudmap

very thoughtful -I like your point that secure people won’t be threatened. Exactly!

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