Saturday, February 23, 2013

The question is ....

“It is not the answer that enlightens but the question.” EugĂ©ne Ionesco, playwright and poet

Why ask questions?
Questions lead to answers. Questions allow us to construct an intelligible world. Without questions, lawyers, philosophers, inventors, scientists, coaches, trainers, knowledge management developers, management consultants, theologians, market researchers, journalists, police investigators and employment interviewers would be lost. Without questions, crucial conversations stall, curiosity goes unsatisfied and learning dries up, veils covering the unknown are not lifted. With only pre-decided answers and no questions, the salesperson fails to understand and connect, and loses out. Without questions the psychologist or narrative therapist cannot open up new possibilities for their clients, the doctor cannot diagnose.
Without questions in a safe environment, where curiosity is valued, innovative companies lose their competitive edge.
 Through questions we can achieve focus, widen our perspectives, deepen and accelerate our learning, solve problems and stimulate good conversations.
Questions enable the quest. The quest for data, information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom.
It’s good that Newton asked “Why did the apple fall?”, Archimedes asked “Why does my bath water rise when I get in?”, de Vinci asked "Could man fly?".
 As a picture can be worth a 1000 words, so too can a good question be worth a 1000 answers.
Help to lead from chaos to order. Fly like an arrow straight to the heart of the matter.
There was once a small boy who loved banging his drum all day and every day. He refused to be quiet, no matter what anyone else said or did. Various people were called in to do something, to find the answer to this disruption, to solve the problem.
The first told the boy that he would surely, if he continued to make so much noise, perforate his eardrums. The second told him that drum beating was a sacred activity and should be reserved only for special occasions. The third offered the villagers plugs for their ears. Someone gave the boy a book to read. Another suggested meditation exercises. Yet another offered more harmonious musical instruments.
Nothing worked.
Eventually a wise old woman asked of the boy, "I wonder what is INSIDE the drum?"
(Idris Shah)
What questions to ask?
Text books are full of information about closed and open-ended questions. They cover leading and rhetorical questions, process questions – prompting, clarifying, probing, establishing, trapping, challenging, reflective, and provocative questions. Multiple-choice questions and enquiring “What if?” questions. They offer critique questions such as the “Who says?” and “So what?” combination. Questions that reframe thinking, that surface alternatives.
(It's also good to escape from too much business reading, and to read simply for enjoyment. I find as much wisdom, and often learn incidentally, by reading novels. Ed McBain's 87th Precinct mysteries, for example are great for studying probing questioning and loop-back techniques).
Asking the right questions is key.
In the Hans Christian Andersen story, a child is the only one to ask what needed to be asked: “Why isn’t the emperor wearing any clothes?”
When disciple Malunkyaputta, worried that so much had yet to be explained by the Buddha, and desperately ‘needing’ answers, he posed these and other questions:
“Is the soul different to the body? Do the enlightened live after death? Is the world eternal or not?”
The Buddha answered:
“I have never said that if you lived a religious life you would understand these things. It is like a man, wounded by a poisoned arrow, who says to those who want to heal him: ‘No. This arrow must not be removed until I know who wounded me, what his name is, where he comes from, and what kind of bow he used, how was the arrow made?’ Surely this man would die before he received his answers. Whatever answers I give to the questions that you have posed Malunkyaputta, there is still suffering, old age, death – and these things we can transcend, and their explanation is useful. Your questions are not useful”.
Malunkyaputta applauded the Buddha’s answers.
Einstein said something along these lines - that if he were about to die and had only 1 hour to figure out how to save his life, he would spend the first 55 minutes of that hour searching for the "right question". Once he had formulated the question, then finding the answer would take only 5 minutes.
For now, just three thoughts:
 In the workplace.
 The Japanese 5 Whys? technique of delving deeper in order to uncover the root cause, is
worth adopting.  We could reverse Benjamin Franklin as a fun way of illustrating this:
            the kingdom was lost (Why?) for want of the war
            the war was lost (Why?) for want of a battle
            the battle was lost (Why?) for want of an army
            an army was lost (Why?) for want of a rider
            a rider was lost (Why?) for want of a horse
            a horse was lost (Why?) for want of a shoe
            a shoe was lost (Why?) For want of a nail
Cognitive Kinetics1 goes beyond mind-mapping, and we use it to generate innovation within groups. To a large extent, a successful outcome depends on the strength and flow of the questions used to initiate new thinking. The Appreciative Inquiry approach, which can also tap into narrative, resonates with the Ionesco quote at the beginning of this article. Instead of asking questions such as 'What is the problem?', 'What is wrong'; the approach is to focus on the positive to tap into solutions: "What is good about what we are doing?' , 'Can we foresee ways in which this can work better?'...........
The same applies to Anecdote Circles.
 Belasco (2): "Too many of us still believe that it is responsibility to provide answers......"
Within relationships.
The Johari Window (developed by Joe Luft and Harry Ingham) is a nice way for people to learn about each other. A window is progressively opened by each person both telling and asking.
Receiving and revealing what is known to self/ not known to self, known to others/ not known to others. It addresses facts, feelings and underlying beliefs.
 Growing yourself.
When spotting one of your own limiting beliefs (“I’m not good at….”, “I can’t……”), a timely intervention along the lines of “Why do I believe this? and “What if it’s not             true?” can move you from awareness to a positive change.
When indignant, angry, disillusioned, try switching from “How could she do this to me, say that about me?” to “What can I take from this that has value?”
I’ve noticed people who wear an armband to help them confront troublesome situations: “What would Jesus do?”
Sometimes you can reverse a question. Instead of “Why do we die?” you can ask, “What would life be like if we did not die?”
There are many teachers and advisers selling water by the river. Quiet times alone in reflection and meditation will often allow you to sate your thirst at the same river, gain answers that no one else can give to you.
How should questions be asked?
Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Naguib Mahfouz, once said: "You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions". Advice to heed.
The right question can be asked in the wrong way. How often have you been asked “How are you doing?” and know that it is being asked by rote, as part of a standard greeting? When asked with real interest and concern, it becomes a different question. And if you emphasise different words in that four-word question, for example “How are YOU doing?” it projects yet other nuances. At a presentation, are questions sometimes intended to impress, or convey that the person posing the question disagrees with the speaker? Or are they asked with an open mind, a genuine intent to learn?
In dialogues, and questions within dialogues, there is an exchange of words (facts) and also expressions, body language, voice tone, pitch, speaking pace (feelings). It is not the actual wording of a question nor reply, but the other elements which are more important.
Ask in a way that shows that you are fully engaged and present, have a genuine interest and are looking for a positive outcome. Ask after a connection has been made and trust established.
Questions and listening are natural bedfellows
So when you’re asked a question listen between the lines for facts and feelings. Respect the other’s question.
Once you’ve asked a question, jump into listening mode. Do this also when a colleague, family member or friend is sharing their thinking. Listen attentively without interfering, without jumping in with answers or questions. This undermines the others ability to do their own thinking, come to their own conclusions. The value of pauses and silences cannot be overstated. A non-verbalised, implied question and interest, conveyed by an encouraging facial expression, eye contact, a raised eyebrow or incline of the head – will often do the trick.
You may of course ask a question like: “What else comes to mind?” so that the others’ thinking flow continues.
It is estimated that the unconscious mind accounts for 95% of all cognition, and Neuro-linguistic practitioners point out that what we hear and say is influenced 55% by outward appearances and body language, 38% by voice quality and only 7% by the actual words used. A great deal of what we hear takes place at the unconscious level. Yet there are things we can do to consciously improve our listening abilities. Attentive listening means listening for content, emotions, assumptions, beliefs, intent.
Sometimes after careful listening you can show the other an uncovered limiting belief, blockage or assumption by asking questions such as: ”If you could…..? or “If you were to…..?”
Silence and pause can often be appropriate. Buddha responded with noble silence when asked certain questions to do with life after death, whether the world was eternal………. questions that are unanswerable but whose contemplation are of value. We do have the right to remain silent sometimes. We can honour others by being silent.
Nancy Kline has lots more to say on this.3
Paul Tillich the theologian says that “Listening is an act of love”.
And remember that story telling invites listening and questions, and carries answers - not simply “What happens next?” but also “What does this mean for me?”
Here is a story to ponder:
I have answered the questions
People approach the new young rabbi in the community with their questions. They come             one by one. Why did my child die? Why did my wife run away? Why is there so much hatred and anger in the world? Where can I find work?
The rabbi is not able answer these questions so he approaches his teacher, the great rabbi who says. “I will come and answer the questions”. There is a great buzz in the community. On the Saturday morning the synagogue is full of people. The great rabbi arrives. He bows to the Torah, the holy book. Then he bows to the people. 
He sits down and says, “Ask your questions”. He listens intensely to the first person’s question and then says, “I won’t answer the questions now. I will wait until everybody has asked their questions”. People look at each other in amazement. How will he remember all the questions from so many people? 
One by one people ask their questions. When everybody has spoken there is silence.
The rabbi begins to rock his body backwards and forwards and begins hum a niggun (a chant to induce a prayerful attitude). The people wonder what the great rabbi is up to and then they begin to hum as well. Then the rabbi stands up and begins to dance. The people begin to dance too. After the humming and the dancing the great rabbi faces the people. There is silence. He bows to them. Then he bows to the Torah. He says, “I have answered your questions" and he leaves. 
So the question is:
Are our questions sometimes self-serving (to boost our egos, show that we know it all) or are they used to empower others and to foster creative inquiry? 
Perhaps we could add to the first verse of Rudyard Kipling’s 
            I keep six honest serving-men
            (They taught me all I knew);
            Their names are What and Why and When
            And How and Where and Who.
They serve me because I serve them
(Show how little I know).  
1. Cybernovation Technologies and Industries Ltd Users Manual: Thinking with Hexagons 1990
2. Belasco, James A Teaching the Elephant to Dance Hutchinson Business Books London 1990
3. Kline, Nancy Time to Think Cassell Illustrated, UK. 1999