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Questions

It is mid-April. For those of us in finance, it is the week of tax filing. Over the last three weeks, those in finance have essentially worked around one of two questions: When are we filing, or Can we file on time? Every tax payer can generally be categorized into two depending on which question they asked: those who are prepared and those who are not.

For the general population, it is Easter weekend. In the workplace over the last two weeks, the one question most asked concerning Easter weekend was this: Where are you going? It is a question the pious bemoan because underneath the question is a basic assumption: Easter weekend, rather than being about religious obligation, is about enjoying a vacation.

The questions that we ask often expose our underlying sentiments and assumptions. That is certainly true. However, the other truth is that questions can be a very powerful tool.

Difficult Situations

As I was cleaning out my books, I happened on a book I hadn’t opened in a long while. It is a book by Sam Deep and Lyle Sussman called “What to ask when you don’t know what to say.”

It is one of those books that I think everyone should read at least once. It is essentially a book that outlines an approach to handling difficult situations through the use of questions. 

In the book’s introduction, the authors say that questions can help “turn confusion into clarity, desperation into decisiveness, and trial into triumph.”  This is, essentially, a book on effective communication. In order to understand how to use questions, it is important to remember what effective communication is about. The authors explain this. “Effective communicators are never at a loss for words.” “They know what to say to get what they want, and the people they leave feel listened to and valued.”  

The authors go on to identify what questions can be used for: focusing thought; bridging conflicting views; building rapport and strengthening relationships; deflecting anger and hostility; showing commitment and interest; turning “discomforting silence into clarifying discourse”; implying rather than asserting; eliciting “reflection contemplation, and introspection.”

Essentially, questions can be used to change the mood by either buying time or changing the trajectory of a discussion. Question can focus thought. Questions can force people to confront their assumptions and biases. Questions can provide a mechanism to build shared understanding. However, used skillfully, also allow the surfacing of undesirable behavior in a socially acceptable manner. One of my favorite questions in the book goes something like this: “Are you trying to be funny or vicious?” Similar questions would include: “Did you think about the effect of your actions on …?”

In fact, questions can be used to avoid many of the common mistakes Carmichael (see Integrations 05 April 2017) outlines in her 2010 article on difficult conversations: falling into a combat mentality; not bringing enough respect to the conversation; lashing out; shutting down; allowing the other person to hit our red buttons; and falling into old patterns and scripts and hence not providing room for real conversation. Deliberately using questions instead of sentences allow us both to seek clarity as well as soften observations.

Learning 

In education, the approach of eliciting understanding, and drawing out ideas and underlying presumptions through asking and answering questions is often referred to as the Socratic method. 

A quick google search turned up the term maieutics which has roots in the Greek maieutikos, from the word maia meaning midwife. Being in the field of adult education, I loved this particular etymology because it captures why questions are powerful. I teach in a case method school and a seminal reading in the case method of teaching is a 1951 article entitled “Because wisdom can’t be told.”  

One of the things we know about teaching methods is that lectures are the most efficient method of delivering large volumes of knowledge. Unfortunately, delivery of material does not guarantee learning. In fact, one of the other things that we know about adult education is that adults learn best when they are actively participating in their learning, especially when they are experiencing or applying what they are meant to learn. 

Questions, especially the right kind of questions, the ones meant to probe for ideas, tease out presumptions, and provoke critical and analytic thinking, are one of the simplest most powerful means of engaging the adult learner. The use of a deliberately planned set of questions (often with alternative trajectories) is typically at the heart of every well-planned class.

Questions, however, go well beyond being a mechanism for teaching. Every group discussion meant to surface concerns, elicit ideas and achieve consensus is typically built on a series of questions. The reality is that questions are how we find our way.

One last important thing, as Deep and Sussman point out in the introduction to their book, is this. Questions are only one part of the story. In order to fully realize the magic of questions, we need to listen to the answers.

Readers can email Maya at [email protected]  Or visit her site at http://integrations.tumblr.com.  For academic publications, Maya uses her full name, Maria Elena Baltazar Herrera.

Topics: Maya Baltazar Herrera , Questions
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