I’ve been studying the art and science of questioning for three decades. In recent years, I’ve talked about this subject at Fortune 500 companies, government agencies such as NASA, and schools from grade-school level through university—as well as at gatherings of farmers, accountants, artists, scientists, soldiers, political operatives, and Hollywood agents. The interest in questioning cuts across all lines, it seems.
And it should. When we are confronted with almost any demanding situation, in work or in life, simply taking the time and effort to ask questions can help guide us to better decisions, fresh ideas, and more productive actions. But the questions must be the right ones—the ones that cut to the heart of a complex challenge or that enable us to see an old problem in a new light. I call these “beautiful questions.” When we ask beautiful questions, we open up new possibilities.
Are you capable of asking such questions? Absolutely; we all are. Questioning comes naturally to us. When people ask, "How does someone become a better questioner?" I advise them to take a few lessons from a true “master questioner”—not Einstein or Socrates, but rather the typical 4-year-old child. Studies have shown that children at that age may ask anywhere from one hundred to three hundred questions a day. (Interestingly, some research shows that a 4-year-old girl asks even more questions than a boy of that age; she is the ultimate questioning machine.)
Questioning at these early ages may seem like child’s play, but it’s a complex, high-order level of thinking. It requires enough awareness to know that one does not know—and the ingenuity to begin to do something to remedy that. As the Harvard University-based child psychologist Paul Harris points out, young children discover early on that the information they seek can be easily extracted from other human beings, merely by using that certain combination of words and vocal inflection that forms a question.
If you could peer inside the mind of a questioning child, you’d get a hint as to why kids seem to enjoy asking “Why?” Merely wondering about an interesting question activates the regions of the brain linked to reward processing. Curiosity—the act of wondering—feels good in and of itself, and thus, questions beget more questions. Think of curiosity as a condition “like an itch,” says the neuroscientist Charan Ranganath. And that condition often leads to the action known as questioning, which is how we scratch the itch.
The 4-year-old child scratches away—until, at some point, she is told to stop. But at that age, she has no reluctance to ask about anything and everything—including the most fundamental questions, those basic “Why?” queries that many of us are loath to ask for fear of looking stupid. The questioning child isn’t weighed down by accumulated knowledge, biases, or assumptions about how the world works and why things are the way they are. Her mind is both open and expansive—an ideal condition for wondering, inquiring, and growing.
This condition begins changing somewhere around age 5 or 6. The asking of questions (at least the ones that are verbalized by young students in school) tends to subside steadily, year by year, according to research from the nonprofit Right Question Institute, which studies questioning and devises question-formulation exercises for schools. What was once a hundred-per-day questioning habit among 4-year-olds dwindles down to a few questions—or none—among teenagers.
The challenge, then, for adults who want to become better questioners is to release your inner 4-year-old—that fearless and imaginative questioner we all used to be. How do you do that? Start by asking yourself the following five questions.
1. Am I willing to be seen as naïve?
This is one of the secret weapons of the 4-year-old; they are naïve, and they don’t care who knows it. So they’re willing to ask fundamental questions without embarrassment. As adults, being able to ask fundamental questions (Why are we doing things the way we’ve been doing them?) can help us break out of habitual thinking and behaviors.
2. Am I comfortable raising questions with no immediate answers?
The most powerful questions—the ones that can really change your life—are not the kind that can be easily answered on Google. You must be willing to live with these harder questions and spend time working on them.
3. Am I willing to move away from what I know?
There’s nothing wrong with having expertise—as long as you don’t rest on it. A beautiful questioner is also a restless learner, constantly exploring new areas.
4. Am I open to admitting I might be wrong?
To be a beautiful questioner, you must have enough humility (and curiosity) to at least consider viewpoints different from your own. This has always been important, but might be more important than ever in these polarized times.
5. Am I willing to slow down and consider?
The simplest and most powerful thing that happens when we ask ourselves questions is that it forces us to think. More specifically, when we’re working on questions in our minds, we’re engaged in “slow thinking,” the term used by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman to describe the kind of deliberate, effortful cognition that tends to lead to better decisions, choices, and actions. This might involve something as simple as pausing before making a decision or pursuing a course of action to ask, "What am I really trying to achieve here?"
Even if you feel that you already have a knack for questioning, there are many ways to improve. In future columns, I’ll share specific types of questions that can help you see past your biases, broaden your thinking, and overcome your fears. We’ll consider techniques for building a better question and sharing it with others—including nuances involving tone and phrasing. And we'll look at ways to encourage others around you to question more (particularly important if you are, or aspire to be, a leader).
In the meantime, think about the five questions featured above and ask yourself: How might I find ways to work on each of these areas?
LinkedIn image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock
“. . .children at that age may ask anywhere from one hundred to three hundred questions a day . . .” Paul Harris, Trusting What You're Told: How Children Learn from Others (Boston: Harvard Press, 2012). Studies also cited in the article “Mothers Asked Nearly 300 Questions a Day, Study Finds,” Telegraph, March 28, 2013.
“. . .Think of curiosity as a condition—“like an itch,” says the neuroscientist Charan Ranganath . . .” “The Power of the Question,” Liesl Gloecker, The Swaddle (blog), March 3, 2017, www.theswaddle.com/how-to-stimulate-curiosity-questions.
“. . . according to research from the nonprofit Right Question Institute . . .” Right Question Institute study based on question-asking data gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics for the 2009 Nation’s Report Card. For more on the study, see www.Rightquestion.org.
“. . . when we’re working on questions in our minds we’re engaged in ‘slow thinking’ . . .” Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2011).