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Questions, Anyone? Part 1

Adapted from the book Uncommon Sense by Bill Abbate

At the foundation of all serious learning is curiosity and questioning. Questions lead to knowledge, understanding, and increased awareness. When you turn questions to yourself, you can gain knowledge and awareness about yourself, about your very being. You can come to see more of who you are and to better understand what makes you tick.

“In the presence of the question, the mind thinks again.”

– Nancy Kline, Time to Think

Nancy Kline stated in her book Time to Think, “The mind resists commands and responds to questions.” Your mind is wonderfully complex, and it doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do! Instead, you have an inherent curiosity that responds to questions, which urge your brain to grow new cells (neurogenesis), regardless of your age.

Ask questions of yourself and your world, as often as you can. It will increase your understanding of how your brain and things around you work and can greatly enhance your life. If you don’t ask questions about yourself, you’re leading an unexamined life— and as the Ancient Philosopher Socrates stated, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” While harsh, there is an element of truth to this statement.

Think about this: The quality of a question determines the quality of your learning. Or put another way, the more powerful the question, the greater the potential to expand your understanding. So how do we ask more powerful questions? Here are some rules of thumb:

The least powerful questions are closed-ended and result in a simple answer like yes or no, or ask you to make a simple choice—such as, which is better, this or that? These questions usually begin with the words who, when, where, or which.

Low-power questions generally lead to short, defined answers, and often lead the person to a reaction or response. They can be great for narrowing down and bringing out more succinct answers; however, they can miss a tremendous amount of valuable information that lies in the deeper layers of truth.

Powerful questions most often begin with what or how. These questions often lead to more profound insight and reflection. Powerful questions can bring answers that supply flavor and richness, getting us to think more deeply and to look inside ourselves.

It’s more difficult to ask a powerful question, but the effort can pay huge dividends. Being willing to phrase and consider powerful questions will help you gain new perspectives, and make you learn and grow.

Powerful questions are important both when you ponder your own life and when you speak to others. Instead of asking simple questions like, “Do you like this?” ask “What do you like best about this?” Instead of asking “Where do you come from?” ask “What made you decide to move here?” The latter questions will provide far more insight into the person, because you’ll get a deeper layer of information.

The most powerful questions begin with why. Why questions can be powerful when used correctly, yet they should be used carefully. When asking someone else “why,” you’re asking for a motive or underlying principle, and that can seem judgmental.

I encourage you to ask “Why did you do that?” of yourself to help probe your underlying assumptions. Yet ask that of someone else, and you’re putting that person on the spot in a way that can be most uncomfortable!

Why questions for other people might be best rephrased as how or what questions. Instead of “Why did you do that?” you can ask “What happened?” or “How did you come to that decision?” Those questions ask for tangible specifics, and people are more likely to have the answers readily available.

While a why question can be useful when we are looking inward, when directed at others, we should first notice our own intent by asking “Why am I asking this question? What do I need to know? Can I ask a question that will give me the same information without seeming judgmental?”

Try this effective exercise to better understand yourself. Ask yourself the same question using “why” multiple times. For example, “Why did I do it?” Or perhaps “Why haven’t I done it yet?” After your first answer to the question, ask it again — “why?” Then ask “why” again and again until you have mined all that can be said. I try to ask “why” to myself at least six times to dig deep. It will astound you how much deeper you can go when you do this, and how many layers you can unravel.

More on questions next week in part 2.

You can uncover more on this topic and others in the book, Uncommon Sense, found on Amazon at: amazon.com/author/billabbate

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