You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions. – Naguib Mahfouz, 1988 Nobel Prize Winner
Sam’s team had had a great year. They had met their objectives and delivered a highly visible, complex project on time and on budget. Sam was looking forward to a promotion and an even better next year.
Then the bottom fell out. A key team member left the company to start his own business. Two more key team members left to join competitors shortly thereafter. The team was losing its “zing,” and Sam grew increasingly worried that this was just the beginning.
He knew he needed to rapidly get the team mobilized and back on track. He scheduled a team building day. He held a series of staff meetings to refocus their attention and energy on present and upcoming initiatives. Yet, the team’s morale still flagged. If I don’t get this team back on track soon, all the talent will leave! But each of his attempts achieved few results.
Sam decided to call his mentor, Linda, and scheduled lunch for the following week.
Linda had been Sam’s senior manager earlier in his career and her sage advice had helped him navigate many turbulent waters. She quietly listened as he described the ups and downs of the past year. “So…,” he concluded, “what would you do in this situation? Surely you’ve got some great approaches.”
To Sam’s surprise, Linda’s answer was quick and simple. “No.”
Sam was dumbfounded. But before he could protest, Linda continued, “But I can ask you a question.” Linda cleared her throat. “Bring to mind one of your remaining team members. Really get inside his or her shoes.” Sam nodded. “What is this person most needing now?”
Just then, a calm washed over Sam. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting himself hear the question again in his mind. To his surprise, an answer soon followed and, opening his eyes, it was as if his next steps were visibly laid out before him. Sam suddenly knew what to do.
The Anatomy of a Question
Our communication tends to be full of statements and starved of questions. Statements are messages and directives that ignite our logical, analytical faculties and prompt us to reach conclusions as soon as possible. When Sam told himself statements like, “If I don’t get this team back on track soon, all the talent will leave,” his logical and analytic faculties were harnessed to overlook and distort the situation such that he couldn’t see how to renew the team.
Questions are different in three important ways:
1. Questions seek information. Asking a question creates a vacuum for an answer to appear.
2. Questions direct attention. Asking a question defines the general landscape for thinking activity. For example, asking “When did I last have my keys?” brings to mind the visual and kinesthetic memory of having your keys and where that occurred, queuing relevant subsequent memories.
3. Questions foster creativity. Questions also can be used to trigger exploration, alternative seeking, and a consequent range of insights. For example, asking, “What’s another way I could reach this month’s sales goal?” automatically directs the mind and calls forth multiple ideas to choose from.
As soon your brain registers a question, it goes to work to solve it using ultra-fast subconscious processing systems.
Your Brain on Questions
Questions trigger a complex set of neurochemical processes that affect communication within the brain across its synapses (small gaps between neurons in the brain). Some brain activities are amplified (through excitatory signals) and some are “turned down” (through inhibitory signals).
Questions specifically trigger the release of the neurochemicals called dopamine, responsible for attention and memory, and norepinephrine, responsible for energy and alertness. Dopamine helps us feel interested in question topic and recall relevant information. Norepinephrine helps dedicate our conscious and subconscious cognitive energies to finding an answer to the question.
Try these techniques to witness the power of questions in your organization:
1. Note the problems you are facing and what you’ve tried that hasn’t worked.
2. Now phrase those problems as questions.
3. Note the impact of the questions on your energy level, recollections, and ideas that emerge.
At Sage Ways, we use these and many other techniques to engage our clients in action learning. According to this philosophy, we begin with questions to move beyond analytical thinking and tried-and-true solutions to achieve creativity and breakthrough thinking.