The power of a question

A few days ago, while I was discussing a rather critical business solution with one of my colleagues, I noticed that there was a strange circularity to our conversation. I kept trying to convince him of the importance of deploying such a solution,but I seemed to fail at eliciting a sense of urgency or enthusiasm from him, even though he did not disagree with me.

It might have been slight vexation on my part when I decided to break the impasse with the question, “So, what’s stopping us from doing this?”

It was then that I discovered that he had concerns about how to go about the task while I was focusing the conversation on why the job mattered.

The communication fog was lifted. We had identified the roadblock.

We often assume that the best way to communicate anything — an idea, a challenge, a solution — is to perfect the art of explaining it to the listener to provide clarity.

However, we tend to overlook the possibility that the questions we are trying to answer are sometimes not the ones that exist in the others’ minds. This could render our efforts at providing clarity, completely irrelevant.

What might be another effective way to communicate, then?

Perhaps, asking questions?

Knowing the answers will help you in school. Knowing how to question will get you through life- Journalist and speaker Warren Berger‘A more beautiful Question.’

It turns out that I am not alone in my quest for questions.

A few months ago, the practice of brainstorming gained a fraught reputation, when technology pioneer and author of the book, “How To Fly A Horse”, Kevin Ashton kicked up a storm with his blog post provocatively titled “Why You Shouldn’t Bother Having Brainstorming Meetings”.

Brainstorming, of course, is a highly popular practice; as he noted, it’s the “go-to approach” for all types of organizations. A typical brainstorming session gathers groups of people to focus on collecting original, creative ideas on a set topic. But this apparently benign approach, Ashton goes on to argue, actually gives rise to ideas that are anything but original. That’s because the focus is on churning out answers.

But what if brainstorms were designed to generate questions, not just ideas for answers? It’s an approach that’s garnering support among many advocates around the world.

The latest champion of this approach is Matthew E. May, author of the book, “Winning the Brain Game”. His book describes a question-generation process called “frame-storming,” which uses questions to help in framing the challenge at hand. Several people have found it to be more efficient than traditional brainstorming in sparking fresh thinking in some situations.

What if we use questions as a method to drive home the thought behind an idea, to help the listener generate answers, instead of to generate questions?

Guiding people into answers through relevant questions surrounding a topic may seem counter-intuitive. It is more natural to try and get people to see the answers when we have them worked out. However, this question-based approach can lead to greater clarity than the usual method of having them ask questions for improved clarity.

It also helps to remember that a question triggers our brains to start serving up answers, almost on autopilot. The answers almost always reinforce the assumptions behind the questions.

Naturally, at this point how the question is formulated assumes paramount significance. A question could spark random divergence from the actual problem by introducing more assumptions, or could become a harbinger for radical solutions or ideas by shattering existing assumptions. Either way, the design of a question definitely begs a lot of attention.

For ages, questions have been at the heart of innovations in science, philosophy, medicine — why not extend the power of the question as a tool for sharpening and deepening communication?

Co-founder & CEO, Exotel

About the Author

Shivakumar Ganesan (or as well lovingly call him Shivku) is the co-founder and CEO of Exotel. At work, Shivku is usually found cracking PJs and disrupting people from doing their job. A self-proclaimed foodie, he is the best person to get the local food scene advice from, irrespective of where you are travelling to.

Exotel — Asia’s leading cloud telephony company

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