HomeStandard StyleAre you asking the right questions?

Are you asking the right questions?

Fourty years ago, someone asked a profound question that fundamentally changed how we communicate with each other every day. Marty, a young engineer at Motorola, was given a new assignment. He was asked to lead a team on a project that showed great promise — the next generation of a car radiotelephone. Marty accepted the challenge.

inspiration with Cynthia C Hakutangwi

However, instead of jumping in, he stepped back and paused, which led him to ask himself a very insightful question. “Why is it that when we want to call and talk to a person, we have to call a place?” That nagging, insightful question changed the entire trajectory of his work, as he refocused his team’s attention on untethering a person from a place (including a car). In 1973, Marty made the first cellphone call on a prototype of what would later become the DynaTAC 8000X, lovingly referred to as “the brick”. It cost $4 000 and had a battery life of just 20 minutes. That first cellphone marked the beginning of a new era of personal communication.

Questions define the agenda of our thinking

The right question can be a disruptive agent, cutting through years of complacency to redirect a team or a company’s focus. It serves as a pointer, aiming us in the direction of the answer. As Einstein put it: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes. Great questions stem from a curious and engaged mind. Many leaders are too busy and too scattered to be able to engage at a level deep enough to understand what kinds of questions need to be asked. Our world of always-on technology, instant gratification, and ever-shorter attention spans pushes us further and further away from taking the time to think through what needs to be asked. The key to powerful thinking is powerful questioning. When we ask the right questions, we succeed as a thinker, for questions are the force that powers our thinking. Questions define the agenda of our thinking. They determine what information we seek. Asking questions drives creativity. It cultivates an open mind. The questions we ask lead us to new knowledge. Questions drive us to answers we never thought to consider until we asked the question. Not all the questions may be worth exploring, but for every dozen, there’s a golden one that causes us to wonder. The golden question cuts through several rings at once. It takes a bit of meandering until we find the question, but once found, it holds us with wonder. Questions are ships that sail us into unfamiliar territory.

Why are intelligent questions important?

Thought leaders from all over the world have created sophisticated frameworks designed to help leaders grapple with their own strategies at an abstract level. But the reality is that strategy succeeds or fails based on how well leaders at every level of an organisation integrate strategic thinking into day-to-day operations. Intelligent questions move conversations forward, they help people see blind spots, they provide for context or understanding around projects and they help us to figure out what our employees and customers want.

Engage critical thinking

We have just stepped into the month of March, a month whose ending will conclude the first quarter of the year. We need to engage critical thinking in order to analyse, evaluate, explain and restructure our thinking, thereby decreasing the risk of adopting, acting on or thinking with a false belief. Consider a questioning strategy that can help you with questions such as: What do I want? What am I currently doing or thinking to get what I want? Is what I am doing working? How can I improve? How am I looking at my present circumstances? How am I envisioning a change? How realistic is my viewpoint? How does it relate to my overall life objectives? What other points of view do I need to consider? If a job change might require a move, what is my spouse’s point of view? What is my purpose, goal, or agenda? (at this meeting, in engaging in this discussion, in carrying on this argument, in my job, in my marriage, as a parent, in buying a new car, in my relationship with this individual, in my leisure time, in my life as a whole)? What is the key question I must answer? What is the main problem I need to solve? What is the crucial issue I must resolve? Given the information I have at my disposal, what tentative conclusions can I come to? How can I best interpret the information I have? What is the key concept or idea I need to understand to make sense of the data and to answer the question, solve the problem, or resolve the issue? As I think through this question, problem, or issue, what am I taking for granted or assuming? Am I justified in doing so? Given what I have reasoned through thus far, what does my reasoning imply? If I act on my conclusions, what are the implications or consequences likely to be? From what point of view am I approaching this question, problem, or issue? Should I consider an alternative point of view? As you deploy these questioning strategies in the various domains of your life, you will discover features of your thinking that need to be revised, rethought, and reconstructed.

Why don’t we ask questions?

If it is obvious that asking questions is such a powerful way of learning, why do we stop asking questions? For some people, the reason is that they are lazy. They assume they know all the main things they need to know and they do not bother to ask more. They cling to their beliefs and remain certain in their assumptions. Other people are afraid that by asking questions they will look weak, ignorant or unsure. They like to give the impression that they are decisive and in command of the relevant issues. Great leaders constantly ask questions and are well aware that they do not have all the answers. Not asking good or even enough questions has a direct impact on the quality of choices you make. Habituating the art of asking questions enables you to gain deep insight, develop more innovative solutions and to arrive at better decision-making. Brilliant thinkers and scientists never stop asking questions.

Intelligent questions stimulate, provoke, inform and inspire. Some people are in such a hurry to get with things that they do not stop to ask questions because it might slow them down. With prospects, clients, at school, at home, in business, with our friends, family, colleagues or managers we can check assumptions and gain a better appreciation of the issues by first asking the right questions. Whether or not your own effort will generate the impact Marty’s question did, it will significantly influence your ability to produce the kind of products, services and outcomes that are life changing.

Cynthia Hakutangwi is a communications and personal development consultant, life coach, author and strategist.
Wholeness Incorporated Coaching offers you strategies you can implement today to become a critical thinker and problem solver. E-mail: Facebook: Wholeness Incorporated.

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