What Questions Did You Ask Today?

“We entered school as question marks, we graduated as periods.”

— Neil Postman, educator

The average five-year-old asks 65 questions per day, most of them starting with “why.” The average 44-year-old manager only asks six questions per day; most of them starting with “when,”  “where,” or “how much.

The number of questions we ask per day doesn’t increase until retirement. Why retirement? Because that’s when we start asking, “Where are my keys?” and “Why did I walk into this room?”

Let’s face it—in these complex times, our children’s iterations of “why” can lead us much more quickly to the root cause of life’s challenges than “when,” “ where,” and “how much.”

Here’s a prime example: your son’s teacher has just called you in to discuss Jonathan’s lack of attention in school. You start off by asking the teacher why he thinks your Jonathan is not paying attention? When the teacher responds, you ask him why he thinks this phenomenon is occurring. Then you ask why a couple more times to get to the root of the issue, so you, your son’s teacher, and Jonathan can all work together to solve the problem.

Warning:  if you only ask why once, you’ll just be coming up with a Band-Aid™ solution that never fixes the problem.

Dr. Jonas Salk said, “The answer to any problem preexists. We need to ask the right question to reveal the answer.” Bingo! We don’t find, create, or invent creative solutions—we reveal them by asking questions. Thus, the way to solve problems is to ask more questions. The more questions you ask, the more likely the answers will appear.

Have you ever played the game Twenty Questions? What if you asked your team to come up with twenty questions about your challenge before you tried to solve it? I guarantee that you’ll reveal great insights about your challenge.

Asking Better Questions: What… Why… How…

Asking better questions is a three-step process. You start with what and then why questions before you ever ask how questions. My favorite first question to ask is:

  1. What is the result we want to see, feel and hear? Be specific with your vision for the future.
  1. Why do we want to achieve this result? Be passionate with your reasons why to achieve this desired result.
  1. How are we going to achieve this result? Be bold with your potential solutions.

The order to these questions is very important. If you start off asking the how questions before thoroughly defining your challenge with the what and why questions, you’d just come up with solutions in regard to an ill defined problem. Not always the best flow for problem solving.

Hopefully, you are seeing the power of asking great questions, and now it’s time to give you some homework to increase your question-asking quotient. So tonight instead of asking your kids, “What did you learn today in school?” ask them instead, “What questions did you ask today?”

Then encourage your kids to practice this level of creative inquiry by saying, “What questions did you ask today at work, Dad?” Enjoy the new family conversation.

You started school as a question mark asking why. My hope is that you regain that question mark status by remembering to ask questions every day. Consider how your life might change if you retired as a question mark instead of a period.    Then you might spend your golden years asking, “What great book should I read today, and why?” instead of “Where are my car keys?”

Submitted by Chic Thompson, author of What a Great Idea! and Yes, but… Chic is a Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Founding Fellow of OpenGrounds at UVA and adjunct faculty at The Brookings Institution. Harvard Business School wrote a case on his speaking career entitled, What a Great Idea! For more information, go to www.whatagreatidea.com


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