Questioning is about curiosity and taking an interest in people and the world in order to unlock the unknown mysteries that surround you. Children are naturally curious, but their avidity for information wears off once they encounter rules, blocks and disinterest.
We all need to develop constructive questioning techniques which help us to gradually understand how things work and what isn’t working. If you focus on building up your understanding of a situation, rather than accepting, suffering or denying it, you hone questions that unlock eventual solutions.
A woman (let’s call her Julie) started a new job with a big company, only to be told on her first day by an employee who was leaving, that her division was dysfunctional. Swallowing her trepidation, she commenced her tasks while seeking information in an unobtrusive fashion. At first, she approached former colleagues with whom she was acquainted, and asked questions over coffee. They were oblique and recommended that she discover the problems’ causes for herself. She observed the processes and outputs that existed and soon realised that her manager was kind-hearted but tense and under siege from two deputies, who conspired against him and undermined each other.
Pre-judging the deputies’ motives for their behaviour was not Julie’s chosen course of action. When one tried to corral her for his own empire-building purposes, she quickly (but pleasantly) called him out. Julie made it clear to the team and management that while she was there to assist everyone, she’d been employed for a particular role. She assured them all that her objective was to achieve the company’s goals and that she would be asking lots of questions to better understand how she could enhance the team’s work.
It’s tempting, particularly in high-pressure environments, to view others as “competition” or even “enemies”. Sadly, too many are closed or adopt an adversarial them-versus-us mindset. This often entrenches bad management and poor team practices. It doesn’t allow people to break free from prejudice which very quickly turns to bias, stereotyping and discrimination.
Julie’s objective attitude to her new role is an excellent example of having learned the art of questioning for good. This entails the following.
Start with an open mind and turn on your curiosity. This involves getting as much information as you can about the situation you’re presented with. Make the most of opportunities that present themselves, listening to as wide a variety of viewpoints as you can. Don’t prejudge or assume. Listen, listen, listen!
Ask why things are done a particular way and how methods and practices were selected. Don’t get personal as in “why is Joe Bloggs so curt with everyone?” or “why is Tina Jones constantly one-upping others?”. You’ll see for yourself if you continue to observe and gather information. Sometimes there’s no need to ask because others may do it for you. Find out how and why things work. The point is to listen and absorb.
This isn’t the same as judging. It’s assimilating the information you have at hand, considering and examining it for gaps in your understanding. Compare and contrast, because amid the problems and the dross lie potential opportunities to apply your skills.
This is the opposite of an adversarial binary approach which pits you against the world. See what skills and knowledge others have. Ask what you can do to lighten others’ loads. It could be as simple as listening and offering low-key advice and pursuing initiatives that bring people together for a common purpose.
Building for better
When you question for good, you are helping to design and construct improved practices. Always make it clear why you’re there and the results you can achieve together.
Career advancement is infinitely more satisfying when you broker solutions. Asking constructive questions is the start of fresh ways of accomplishing outcomes.
The art of questioning for good is really an exercise in becoming a rebel with a very worthwhile cause.