“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” –Naguib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize Winner)
Our brains love questions. They have the power to engage us and to shift our mindsets. They drive knowledge and growth, and fuel both creativity and critical thinking. Here are 10 ways to ask questions more intelligently you can start using today.
1. Questions for Creative Problem Solving
One of the most effective ways to approach any problem is to ask questions about it. The greatest thing about questions is that your brain automatically starts working on them as soon as you ask them. Not only that, but it’ll keep working on them in the background, when you’re not even aware of it.
For an initial set of more than 50 sample questions you can use in just about any problem, try the SCAMPER technique. Another effective technique you can use is asking why until you get to the core of your problem.
2. Questions for Shifting Your Perspective to a Problem
Just like it’s useful asking questions about a problem, so it is turning the problem itself into a question. We know that properly defining and stating problems is essential for great problem solving, and framing problems as questions is one of the techniques that can definitely boost your effectiveness as problem-solver.
In general, statements trigger our brains’ logical and analytical skills. Many times, they encourage you to try and reach conclusions as soon as possible. Questions, on the other hand, trigger our brains’ imagination and creative thinking skills. They encourage you to take a more exploratory approach, which tends to foster a whole new set of insights.
For example, try changing a problem statement such as “Ways to Improve My Life” into questions such as “In what ways can I improve my life?”, or “Is there an opportunity for improving my life here?”, and check how it feels.
3. Questions for Directing Thinking and Debate
Questions guide and direct our thinking process. Depending on the situation, it might be more useful to ask “open”, or “expanding” questions: they elicit new ideas, opinions and grow possibilities. Examples include “What are your thoughts on this idea?”, and “Can you think of other usage scenarios?”.
On the other hand, sometimes it might be more productive to ask “closed” or “narrowing down” questions: they converge focus, direct thinking, and bring discussions to a more objective, “down-to-earth” level. Examples include: “What are the tasks that need to get done?”, “How much will this cost?”.
The idea is to purposefully use different kinds of questions at different times to consciously drive your thinking process towards the most productive direction.
4. Questions for Education and Leadership
Great teachers and coaches know that true learning can only happen when students think by themselves. Questions are a great way to stimulate thinking — and, if used skillfully, work vastly better than just dumping knowledge into someone’s head.
Instead of simply showing concepts and solutions to students, teachers can use questions to instigate collaborative exploration: ” What would happen if we increased the angle here?”, “How would it behave without air resistance?” and so on.
Also, questions work not only for teachers, but can be extremely useful in business environments. In corporations, for example, leaders (formal or not) can, by asking questions and guiding people to think for themselves, encourage shared pride and ownership of the solutions generated. Typical questions include “What solutions can we see here?” and “What do you think we should do?”.
5. Questions for Creating Conversation and Empathy
Questions are the glue of empathetic communication: they energize and enliven conversations, inviting people to participate and to share insights and opinions. When you use them properly, people feel included and listened to and, therefore, will be much more likely to engage in meaningful and productive conversation.
Lately, I started noticing that many discussions are, in fact, more like simultaneous monologues: instead of listening, each person is just waiting his turn to talk. Simple queries such as “How can I help?”, or “Did your son get better since last time we talked?” are the easiest way to show that you’re listening, and that you honestly care about what’s being shared with you.
6. Questions for Critical Thinking
Skillful use of inquiry is the cornerstone of critical thinking. Again, it’s only through questioning that we can truly think by ourselves — instead of blindly accepting whatever we’re told as the right thing to do or the only acceptable answer.
When I say ‘skillful use of inquiry’, this does not mean necessarily getting fancy: oftentimes, it means being playful and “thinking like a child”. Great critical thinkers don’t get embarrassed to ask seemingly naïve questions: these are usually the most effective — as well as the ones snob intellectuals are more prone to overlook.
As an effective initial set of questions to use, it’s hard to beat the famous 5Ws (what, where, who, when and why). “Where did you see it?”, “What are the causes of it?”, “Why is the emperor naked?”.
7. Questions for Shifting Your Focus
Reframing self-limiting situations as questions has long been celebrated as an excellent way to instantly changing the way we feel.
Suppose you’re feeling down but, even so, you dare to ask yourself “What am I excited about?”. At first, you’ll get irritated by the question. However, if you put honest effort in answering it, you will indeed find something worth feeling better about. And that’s not denial: it’s just shifting your focus.
Also, disempowering statements such as “This is impossible!” increase your stress and prevent you from searching for solutions. Turn it into “How can I make this possible?” or ” What’s good about this?” puts you back in the driver’s seat and direct your focus on solutions.
8. Questions for Inspiration, Goal Setting and Action
A great way to set goals is by asking yourself “What if…?”. This question alone has the power to direct our imagination to create a vision for ourselves — and then spawn the thought processes that help it become reality.
A technique I use to think about “higher-levels” goals — as well as roles and areas of responsibility — is to turn them into questions. Statements may work fine for to-do lists, but I find that for thinking about the big picture they’re overly dull and uninspiring.
For example, suppose that you identified ‘Health’ as a general area that is important to you. Now, one way to track and assess progress under that area is to think generically about this label “Health” and what actions you can take. Contrast it with the much stronger alternative of turning it into a question: “How can I improve my health today?”.
Thinking that way motivates and primes you for action. In fact, it’s so strong that it’s hard not to take action, don’t you agree? The same holds true for goals and even lower-level projects: the goal “Get 10 new customers by the end of the week” may be what some call a SMART goal, but “What can I do now to get a new customer?” is the one that motivates action the most.
9. Questions for Self-Reflection
As powerful thinking tools that they are, questions can help you examine your life and help you get in touch with your inner self. They work very well with standard self-reflection techniques, such as many forms of journaling.
A great exercise is to create a list of 100 consisting only of questions — the questions that matter the most to you at the moment (these can range from “Where did I left my keys?” to “What’s my life mission?”). From that list, narrow it down to ten or twenty items, creating your own List of Great Questions, which you can revisit often to reconnect with the pursuits that really matter to you.
An extension of that technique you may want to try is taking each of those questions and journaling about them, devoting a journal entry for each question, just like in the Topics du Jour technique. This gives you the opportunity to focus your attention on each question at regular intervals.
10. Questioning as a Way of Life
Developing the habit of questioning is perhaps the greatest hallmark of highly-developed minds. I believe that questioning is the ultimate tool to stimulate thinking and, as such, it’s hard to dispute the usefulness and importance of cultivating this habit.
But how do we develop the habit of questioning? The answer, just like everything else in life, is practice, practice, practice. Always carry a notebook with you and keep writing questions down as they come to you.
Question everything. Become comfortable with unanswered questions. Don’t see them as problems, or as a necessary evil in your way to answers. Welcome them. Play with them. Your brain will thank you.