QUESTIONS. How curious are you? Do you take things at face value? Do you ever avoid asking questions because you think you'll sound naive? Are you willing to ask the tough and unpopular questions?
If you've spent time around a young child then at some point you've probably experienced a seemingly endless stream of questions, such as "Why is the sky blue?", "Why does a dog have a tail?", "What makes the grass grow?", "Where do babies come from?", "What is God?", "Where do you go when you die?" Young children are naturally curious. It's how they learn. They are inspecting the world with no preconceptions. They are present in the details of the experience. Their inner voice has not yet been quieted. To an adult, this wonder of a child can either be an annoyance, or a path to a new perspective.
Questions have been called "the breath of life for a conversation." They have great power. They can inform, provoke, lead, affirm, confirm, review, persuade, assess, clarify, poll, or even confront. Questions demand answers. As soon as one is asked, the brain goes to work. Questions can be a valuable tool in business and in life. Open-ended questions, in particular, can yield significant information allowing you to be in charge of the discussion by finding out what is on the other person's mind. They allow you to challenge assumptions, reduce misunderstandings, solicit honest feedback, make more informed decisions, and illicit insights. For example, whenever someone calls to ask about my speaking availability and rates, I generally respond with a host of questions to help me understand the audience and the client expectations. I can then tailor a response that demonstrates my knowledge, adds value to their process, and as a result, secures the booking and ensures that I deliver an effective talk. The Socratic method of teaching is also central to my private coaching practice. For example, when a client is struggling with a challenge, I pose leading and sometimes unexpected questions to increase their awareness, clarify their thinking, and uncover potential strategies. Then, they can determine the answers themselves, which allows them to "own" the solution, and thus, provides a personal impetus to change.
"The answer is really in how you structure the question, and if you don't like the answer, it may be time to reframe the question."
-- Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy
The Nobel prize-winning Egyptian novelist, Naquib Manfouz said, "You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions." In other words, the quality of the answer depends on the quality of the question. Seek specificity. Scientists and researchers live by this principle. They know that the answer is really in how you structure the question, andif you don’t like the answer, it may be time to reframe the question. One of my professors at HarvardBusinessSchool once said, "Management techniques may change. What we're really teaching you is a way of thinking, the ability to ask the right questions." For example, when you're trying to close a sale, instead of asking, "Which model do you like?;" ask "What results are you expecting?" When you're trying to deepen a relationship, instead of asking, "Why doesn't he get it?"; ask, "How can I communicate so that he can understand me?" When you're trying to interpret a situation, instead of asking, "Why is this happening to me?"; ask, "What can I learn from this?" Harness the power of questions, and you can empower and transform your life.
How curious are you?
The simplest questions are often the most profound and can be important self-inquiry tools, such as the Power Living® Three Core Questions: "Who Am I? Where Am I? What Must I Do To Be Me?" When my dad asked me these questions growing up, I didn't know what they really meant. It took a few decades to explore their meanings and then determine heart-felt answers. These are the questions to ask every day so you can be clear on what you truly want, why you want it and what you can do to get it. Instead of living from inherited beliefs and desires, you can live your own truth and create your own destiny. At the end of one of my dad's pieces, he wrote: "You, the beholder, must give witness. You are provoked, stimulated. Challenged! Challenged to discover your own humanity. Challenged to search for your own unique beginning as a human being. To try to start anew. To be born again. To marvel at the miracle of humanity and the universe. To learn to ask the right questions. To question! To learn to search in the right places. To question? But to begin!" Begin to ask the tough questions. Don't allow assumptions to blind you. Become an inquirer. And once you ask, be quiet and simply listen.
Start asking. Have the courage to speak up. If something is not working right in a situation, ask "How can this be better?" If you don't understand something in a dicussion, ask "Can you please explain..." Practice asking questions every day. Once you get in the habit, you won't be able to stop.
Pose open-ended questions. A closed-ended question, such as those starting with the words "Do," "Could," "Would," or "Are," can only be answered "yes," "no," or "maybe." An open-ended question starting with words such as "How" and "What," invites reflection and sparks a discussion.
Be non-threatening. Avoid making your questions sound like you are conducting an interrogation. Start with easy and short questions, use a soft tone and suspend judgment. You could start off with "I'm interested in learning about..."
Follow up. Keep asking. After the first question, continue with "Could you expand on that for me..." See how many questions you can ask before you actually comment.
Listen and reflect. Rather than anticipate the response, truly listen. Write notes. Reflect on what the other person is saying. Be comfortable with silence. If the other person stops talking, keep your mouth closed without feeling obligated to fill the air with chatter. You'll learn more if you allow them to continue.
Nurture curiosity. When a child is asking a string of questions, don't get irritated. Invite the child to find the answers himself in a book, online, or through an experiment. Brainstorm together. If you don't have time that moment, then write it down (or have the child write it) so that you can talk about it later.
I make every day an adventure by taking on the wonder of a child. I ask the simple and tough questions. I have the courage to speak up and seek the information I need. I use the power of questions to stimulate thought, explore options, reduce misunderstandings, and find solutions.
Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy is President of Power Living Enterprises, Inc. and Founder of PWR Brokers Incorporated. A former vice president at MTV Networks, she has a Ph.D. in World Religions, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and certifications in Holistic Health, Yoga and Fitness. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 212-901-6913.
Power Living® Column Vol. 65.07, originally published September 2007. Terri Kennedy has written over 70 "The Power of..." columns that are available for syndication. Call 212-901-6913 for more information.