Ask the ‘right’ ques­tions

It’s a skill that can be learned for prob­lem solv­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­BARA BOWES

AL­BERT Ein­stein, the world-renowned physi­cist made fa­mous through his the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity, was also known for his gen­eral skill in prob­lem solv­ing. In fact, he once stated that if he had one hour of his life left to save the world, he would spend fifty-five min­utes defin­ing the prob­lem and only five min­utes of time on the so­lu­tion. In other words, his mes­sage is that there’s a lot more power in ask­ing ques­tions and the “right” ques­tions to de­fine a prob­lem rather than sim­ply jump­ing in and try­ing to find a so­lu­tion. But be­lieve it or not, many of us con­tin­u­ally jump right into a prob­lem in­stead of step­ping back and in­vest­ing time in defin­ing the prob­lem.

As you might ex­pect, the so­lu­tions to prob­lems de­pend on how much time you spend on defin­ing the prob­lem. There­fore, ap­ply­ing a ques­tion-based strat­egy to prob­lem­solv­ing has a num­ber of ben­e­fits. For in­stance, ask­ing ques­tions gives you per­sonal power and con­trol over a con­ver­sa­tion. The in­for­ma­tion you glean from re­sponses to your ques­tions gives you power. In ad­di­tion, the ques­tions you ask also force you to de­velop bet­ter lis­ten­ing skills. The so-called open-ended ques­tions are par­tic­u­larly help­ful be­cause they al­low an­other per­son to give a broader re­sponse, which in turn pro­vides you with more in­for­ma­tion.

Ques­tions can also help you to un­der­stand an­other per­son bet­ter as re­sponses may pro­vide per­sonal de­tails and al­low you to show em­pa­thy to­ward oth­ers and be­gin build­ing re­la­tion­ships. Then again, a strat­egy of us­ing rhetor­i­cal ques­tions al­lows you to make your point with­out ex­pect­ing a re­sponse.

How­ever, here’s a ques­tion for you: Can ques­tion­ing be learned and/or is it a nat­u­ral skill? The an­swer is yes, the art of ask­ing ques­tions can be learned and in fact, in my view, learn­ing to be crit­i­cal thinkers should be part of your train­ing cur­ricu­lum. Ask­ing ques­tions is a cre­ative process and a strat­egy that helps peo­ple use their imag­i­na­tion and to ex­plore new in­sights. Let’s take a look at some ques­tion­ing tech­niques that you can adapt in your work­place right now.

Re­phrase the prob­lem — the words we use in de­scrib­ing the prob­lem play a key role in how peo­ple per­ceive the prob­lem. The tac­tic then is to re­phrase the prob­lem. Try sub­sti­tut­ing one word at a time with dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions and word re­place­ments, re­peat the prob­lem to see if the per­cep­tion has been changed. When the per­cep­tions change, the so­lu­tions to solv­ing the prob­lem will change as well.

Re­verse the prob­lem — if you are really stuck with a prob­lem, try turn­ing it on its head. For in­stance, if you are look­ing for a way to pro­vide bet­ter cus­tomer ser­vice, think in­stead of how you can make it worse — then flip this back into the pos­i­tive.

Gather your facts — while gath­er­ing your facts seems to be so ob­vi­ous, it’s of­ten the most ne­glected part of prob­lem solv­ing. You need to in­ves­ti­gate your facts and seek in-depth in­for­ma­tion so that you have all of the de­tails. If you don’t do this step well, your prob­lem de­scrip­tion will be too vague and your so­lu­tion will not be as ef­fec­tive.

Avoid self-lim­it­ing la­bels — we all have some form of in­ter­nal feed­back and so when we say “that won’t work” with­out ex­plor­ing things, it sim­ply shuts the door on your cre­ative think­ing. Thoughts and com­ments such as this are self-lim­it­ing la­bels. In­stead re­state your prob­lem and add more ques­tions un­til you run out of ideas, but stay away from be­ing neg­a­tive.

Widen your view — in many cases we look at a prob­lem from too nar­row a per­spec­tive when in fact, the prob­lem is prob­a­bly part of a big­ger prob­lem. Stand back and look at the big pic­ture, ask what part this prob­lem plays in a larger prob­lem. Brain­storm the el­e­ments of the prob­lem from all an­gles.

Dig deep — from the other per­spec­tive, your prob­lem also con­sists of many smaller prob­lems. There­fore, try to de­com­pose the prob­lem into its smaller pieces. Once again, use the word sub­sti­tu­tion strat­egy to get your cre­ative juices go­ing.

Mar­ilee Adams, au­thor of Change Your Ques­tions, Change Your Life, sug­gests that there are only two paths to ask­ing ques­tions, that of a learner ver­sus a judger. In her view, the judger path of ques­tion­ing is more of a re­ac­tive re­sponse to a prob­lem. When some­one takes the path of judg­men­tal ques­tion­ing, they ask ques­tions such as, “why am I a fail­ure?” or “whose fault is it?” This type of ques­tion­ing is noth­ing short of blam­ing and la­belling that only cre­ates a sense of neg­a­tiv­ity around the prob­lem, which in turn sim­ply causes you to be stuck.

On the other hand, tak­ing a learner ap­proach to ask­ing ques­tions sends peo­ple down the path of cre­ativ­ity and idea gen­er­a­tion. For in­stance, an­swers to the ques­tions “what hap­pened?” “what are the facts?” “what as­sump­tions am I mak­ing?” pro­vide you with much more in­for­ma­tion and take you down the path of ex­plor­ing new pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Ear­lier, I men­tioned that any­one can learn to be bet­ter at the art of ask­ing ques­tions and I truly be­lieve that.

How­ever, Adams also has a very good point in that we each have con­trol over which path to prob­lem-solv­ing we take. The chal­lenge is be­ing mind­ful of our own thoughts, our feel­ings and our lan­guage and to catch our­selves if we start down the path of judg­men­tal ques­tions. Ask­ing judg­men­tal ques­tions shuts down any cre­ativ­ity and so­lu­tions are then con­strained by the nar­row­ness of the prob­lem-solv­ing tech­nique.

In her view, be­ing a good self-observer is the key to en­sur­ing you are go­ing down the path of ask­ing ques­tions from a learn­ing per­spec­tive.

Learn­ing to build your skills in the art of ques­tion think­ing adds sev­eral ben­e­fits to both in­di­vid­u­als and the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Hav­ing strength in the art of ques­tion­ing helps in­di­vid­u­als to look at is­sues from a fu­tur­is­tic per­spec­tive rather than sim­ply from past prac­tice.

Stronger ques­tion think­ing skills also helps peo­ple to look past old tried and true con­ven­tional so­lu­tions to find new ideas.

Over­all, hav­ing em­ploy­ees who are more ef­fec­tive at ques­tion think­ing im­proves team­work and takes ad­van­tage of the di­ver­sity of ideas within your work­place.

While we hope we’ll never be left with only one hour of our life left to save the world, spend­ing time up front defin­ing the prob­lem is time well spent.

Source: Change your Ques­tions, Change your Life, Mar­ilee Adams, Ber­rett-Koehler Pub­li­ca­tions; 2009. Ein­stein’s Se­cret to Amaz­ing Prob­lem Solv­ing, lite­mind.com

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