Albert Einstein once suggested that if he had an hour to solve a problem and his life depended on it, he’d spend the first 55 minutes determining the best question to ask. ‘For once I know the proper question,’ he said, ‘I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.’
In a school and classroom context, renowned educational consultants Robin Fogarty and Brian Pete suggest that the power of asking good questions is that they help students understand and learn:
- what they know
- what they don’t know
- what to do when they don’t know.
This applies equally to business and leadership.
To better understand what constitutes a ‘good’ question, I once interviewed an award-winning counsellor and social worker with over 30 years’ experience. Drawing on countless hours of asking powerful and strategic questions of her clients, this counsellor suggested three keys to asking effective, capability-building questions:
1. Be mindful of your motivation
All too often we ask questions of students in a way that communicates that there is a predefined ‘right’ answer we expect from them. Questions of this nature can easily come across as contrived or manipulative and quickly erode trust and student engagement.
Powerful questions always come from a place of genuine curiosity and openness.
To this end, the words of Alexandra K. Trenfor ring true: ‘The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.’
2. Respond to a question with a question
Years ago I enrolled in a short course on persuasive communication at Sydney University. One principle stuck with me more than any other at the conclusion of the course: in any human interaction, whoever is asking the questions is in control of the conversation.
I’d challenge you to consider this in your own context. Next time you’re speaking to a colleague, a friend or even your partner, become cognisant of who is asking the questions in the conversation. At any given moment, the person asking the questions is the one in the driver’s seat.
Carrying this across to a classroom context, I often speak to classroom teachers who describe the classroom as being increasingly ‘out of control’ as they endeavour to move away from the traditional teaching mode. When I have the chance to observe what’s going on, it’s clear why this is the case. In almost every instance, the students are the ones asking all the questions and therefore it is they who are in control.
Active and adept facilitators realise that the quickest way to get back in the leadership position in the working or learning environment is to respond to questions with a question of your own. In a heartbeat, you’ll be back in ‘control’ (for want of a better word).
The challenge then is to respond to student’s questions with a question of your own that is not patronising, trite or insincere. This can be as a simple as replying to their question with:
- That’s a great question, what’s your hunch?
- That’s a great question, what does it say online from what you’ve read?
- That’s a great question, what have you heard other’s say?
- That’s a great question, what led you to ask it?
Beyond putting you back into a position of leadership, responding to students’ questions with a question of your own teaches them to think for themselves, not seek out simple or immediate answers, and to be comfortable with nuance.
Good questions are an opportunity to open discussion and encourage thought rather than simply test or challenge to get the correct response. In the book ‘The Art of Powerful Questions’ the authors state: ‘Questions open the door to dialogue and discovery. They are an invitation to creativity and breakthrough thinking.’
3. Never start with ‘why’
The third key in effective questioning is to avoid beginning any question with the word ‘why’. The reason is that starting a question with ‘why’ tends to prompt a defensive or adversarial response.
Instead, by opening questions with words like ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ or ‘how’, you are more likely to create a willing openness.
For example, asking ‘Why did you do that?’ will likely invite a defensive response. In contrast, asking ‘What made you do that?’ is more likely to lead students to reflect on their motivations and assumptions.
This focus on asking questions that invite a cognitive rather than a behavioural response can also extend to follow-up questions as you deal with students.
Using phrases like ‘Tell me about that’, ‘What do you mean?’ and ‘Can you elaborate for me?’ gives the respondent permission to think and learn out loud. Such questions have the unique potential to bring underlying assumptions to the surface and lead to self-reflection.
Integrating these three keys into your workplaces, classrooms and relationships will ensure you are asking questions that are sensitive, effective and productive.
If you are finding your conversations are not resulting in what you had hoped, consider the questions you are asking. Are you asking questions? More importantly, are you asking the right questions?