A Google Trends search on “ask better questions” and “problem-solving” throws up a stark contrast. While problem-solving has always interested people, asking questions doesn’t appear on the radar at all.
I want to say this surprised me. But it didn’t. I don’t think it surprised you either. Maybe you’re already silently explaining to me how problem-solving is far more important than asking questions.
On the face of it, you’d be right.
Problems are challenges. Questions create these challenges. They disrupt structures and make people have to think about what they’re doing. In the age of action, thinking is a huge waste of time.
Solving problems, on the other hand, means giving the right answers. Answers move things forward, bring progress, and separate the expert from the rest.
Problem-solvers command huge respect and admiration. Questioners, on the other hand, are people who either “don’t know” or “don’t understand” anything.
This is not how we thought as children. We asked a lot of questions. “A lot” is an understatement since, on an average, a mother could field up to 288 questions from her young child.
But we quickly learned that questions were unwelcome. Answers got us acceptance and recognition. Hermione Granger-like children turned into teachers’ pets. The better we did in our exams, the more doors opened up for us. Answers became an indication of our intelligence. Our reputations developed a direct correlation with them.
Asking questions became the domain of authority figures — parents, teachers, elders, and bosses. Asking them questions in return was like challenging the authority. The room would turn so quiet it resembled a movie hall playing a thriller.
But in this pursuit for the right answers, we’ve got one thing horribly wrong. Answers don’t usher in progress; questions do.
Why Questions Matter
David Stork explained that questions are the effect of curiosity and the best way to find out what we don’t know. What we know and what we know we do not know pales in comparison to what we do not know we do not know.
As a young child, Einstein asked himself, “If I look at myself in the mirror and move forward at the speed of light, will I still be able to see myself?” That brilliant question manifested into many more. Eventually, he answered them all with the Theory of Relativity.
Steve Jobs’ brief to engineers for the first iPhone was, “A phone people love so much that they don’t want to leave home without it.” No answers, just one question to work on.
Edwin Land’s daughter asked him why she couldn’t see photos clicked by a camera immediately. The question spawned 30 years of his work that led to the Polaroid camera.
In his book Ignorance: How it Drives Science, author Stuart Firestein wrote:
“One good question can give rise to several lays of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of thinking, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.”
Questions train you to set better goals. Take Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks. While some of his classmates are cops and fireman, and others are in jail, Schultz is worth over a billion dollars. He attributes this dazzling success to his mother’s questions.
When Schultz was in school, his mother would ask him questions like “How are you going to study tonight? What are you going to do tomorrow? How do you know you’re ready for your tests?” These questions, Schultz admits, trained him to set goals from a young age.
Here’s how questions help you grow in the three most important aspects of your life — self, relationships, and career.
#1. Questioning for Self-Improvement
Learning is a key trait needed to thrive in today’s times.
In the past, the world evolved slowly. The industrial era created schools that taught children the skills they needed to contribute to the workforce. When these children turned into adults, they did what they learned until retirement (or death).
Today, a lot of what we know gets revised every day or turns obsolete. That’s why twenty years’ experience can no longer mean one year’s experience twenty times.
“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don’t. I divide the world into learners and non-learners.” — Benjamin Barber
But most people won’t accept this. When circumstances change, they’ll bury their heads in the sand and wait for the change to pass by. What they fail to realize is that these changes won’t pass. They’re here to stay. That’s what evolution means.
Use questions to adapt to these changes instead of running from them. Figure out what new conditions mean, the openings they create and how you can use them to your advantage.
If you want to keep up with circumstances, you must challenge the way you do things. Ask yourself, “Why do I do things this way? Is there a better way? What are my long-term goals?”
Such questions will lead you to answers that will make you work smarter.
#2. Questioning in Relationships
The quality of our cameras has improved drastically in the last decade. But what about the quality of our relationships? Are they stronger than they were in yesteryear?
Relationships are falling apart. People are taking longer to get married. What’s worse, they often get into relationships for the wrong reasons. This is partly because they don’t know what they’re really looking for, and partly because of the lack of conversations.
We question partners about their day but don’t listen. If a partner, colleague or friend shares something about their life, we’re waiting to burst into the “here’s-what-I-would-do” monologue. This shows how low the value of questions has dropped in our eyes.
Constructive conversations are crucial to keeping relationships alive. These conversations are dialogues, not monologues. And questions play an integral role in such conversations.
The question gets you the answer. The follow-up question gets you gold. — Jason Fried.
Make your partner feel heard. Ask questions. listen to the answers. Use them to fuel deeper questions and strengthen your relationship. When your partner is upset, ask questions until emotions run out and what remains is the real issue.
These conversations will help you build far stronger relationships than the ones you see on Instagram and Facebook.
#3. Questioning in the Work Space
The office space is a paradox. While employers rate problem-identification higher than problem-solving, actions rarely match words.
The root cause lies in our educational system. While employers say problem-identification and articulation best demonstrate creativity, school superintendents rank it ninth. Superintendents rank problem-solving first, but employers rank it eighth. (source)
The result is a culture where everyone has turned into problem-solvers without understanding the real cause. We’re always fire-fighting, solving the same problems over and over again, yet barely making any progress.
If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions. — Albert Einstein
5 Ways to Ask Meaningful Questions
Here are five ways to ask meaningful questions that will improve the quality of your life.
1. Stop being ashamed. “What will people think?” is not a question you need an answer to. Shed your shame like an old snakeskin. Every successful person started with a question that appeared ridiculous at that time. In fact, many people have the same “stupid” question as you but are too afraid to ask. You don’t know which “stupid” question will set the ball rolling.
2. Start small. Large questions will overwhelm you even before you begin looking for answers. Break a big question down into smaller ones. For instance, rather setting five-year goals, ask yourself what’s one exciting action you can take for the next two weeks.
3. Don’t hide behind questions. Someone I knew wanted to foray into writing. But within a month she took a break to “be” with questions like “Who am I? What’s my authentic self?” You will never find the final answer to a question because as you evolve, so do your answers. Let questions drive you to action, not procrastination.
4. Question outcomes. Jumping mindlessly from one thing to another is why people do a lot but don’t make progress. Pair your actions with reflection. Ask yourself, “How did this work out? Why did this happen? What can I do to improve the next time?” Turn those questions into action.
5. Get comfortable with not knowing. Successful people are comfortable with not having answers right away. They keep important questions floating in the back of their mind. True learning occurs in the space of searching for the answer. The answer itself ends the process.
Most questions today are rhetorical. They’re poorly disguised opinions and beliefs. We ask questions to check whether our counterpart’s point of view matches ours, or to put them on the spot. We talk about the need for inclusivity but our actions prove otherwise.
Broadening our perspectives begins with looking for better questions instead of answers. Let questions fill you with wonder. Use them to build an exciting life.
Answers are important. We must keep hunting for them. But to hunt for good answers, we must begin by asking better questions.