The Forgotten Art of Asking Questions

February 12th, 2021




What’s so great about asking questions, you may ask?

In the VUCA world that we live in (I am tempted to add “Virus struck” to it!), our ability to survive and grow will depend on us asking the right questions. There is an urgent need to revive the “The Forgotten Art of Asking Questions” to reduce, if not eliminate, the levels of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Hopefully, medical researchers across the world will find a vaccine for COVID-19 soon by asking the right questions!!

Let’s do some crystal ball gazing now.

As we transport ourselves into a world that is devoid of the threat of COVID-19 and wonders about what will be the “new normal” and the “new world order”, we are confronted with the reality that most of us (me included) have perhaps become too used to accepting the status quo. This seriously limits our ability to visualize the future.

The world is going to need innovative solutions to deal with the magnitude and scale of the problems we face today. It is quite clear that these solutions will be underpinned by some really imaginative thinking and driven by really probing questions.

Children have this amazing ability to ask questions-lots of them. In fact, a 4-year-old ends up asking over 300 questions a day.

That number drops steadily as we grow up. We would like to believe that it happens because we know. But do we really know everything about what’s happening around us?

I think its our education system that really discourages anyone who asks questions. Somehow, asking a question is seen as an admission of ignorance, when it is actually all about the person’s willingness to learn.

This brings me to discussing what purpose do questions really serve. According to my, here are some simple ways in which asking questions can help us.

1) Asking questions help us to improve our understanding of the people we are interacting with

Think about the last time you went to a doctor. A good doctor will first check your pulse and then get started with asking you a whole set of questions-questions that are really about understanding you and your activities.

Your answers help the doctor to formulate a hypothesis on potential causes for your ailment, which determine the course of treatment. It sounds quite simple, doesn’t it? Well, good doctors have perfected the art of asking the toughest questions in the most non-intrusive manner possible, which helps them to prescribe the right treatment.

Let's take another example. Let's think about when we were in a negotiation. Expert negotiators actually spend a lot of time asking questions. They use this technique very effectively to test their understanding of the person they are negotiating with.

If you observe them closely, you will realize that they convey very little information but spend most of the time listening to what the other person is saying. So simply put, successful negotiations are really about asking lots of questions and revealing very little information.

2) Asking questions help us structure conversations

You may have fond memories of those one-off conversations that you had with a stranger who happened to be on the same flight as you were. If you reflect on that interaction, you would realize that questions help you to focus on key topics, move the conversation forward and then pause to ensure understanding. The type of questions we ask determines the kind of answers we get.

How does one go about asking questions?

1. Recognition of the problem

What is the problem we are trying to solve?

2. Timing

Are we asking the right question at the right time?

3. Focus

Are we focused on the key question that we are attempting to find an answer to?

4. Humility

Are we humble enough to admit that we don’t know the answer?

The art of asking can be transformative. Progress depends entirely on our ability to seek out novel information. Thoughtful and timely questions, properly phrased, foster smoother interactions and lead to brilliant discoveries. Are you willing to give it a try?



Rajesh is a business leader with a strong background in strategy development and operations with over 25 years of experience. Rajesh champions innovative, strategic thinking and has studied at INSEAD, Singapore and at NIT, Surathkal.

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