Asking Questions
Stowe Boyd

The Rules Against Asking Questions

Asking Questions, an article by Stowe Boyd on Medium, stabs at a lifelong wound. A wound that I suspect many of us suffer from.

From the beginning of our lives our parents, family, schools and religions discourage questions. From the beginning, we are taught that questions are perceived as a threat. But let’s make a clear distinction here: a question is allowed if, and only when, the authority has an answer. Particularly if it’s a stock answer, easy answer, codified answer, approved answer, or some other variation of proven-to-be-the- answer answer.

The unspoken rules about questions goes way back. Questions are a threat that’s deeply entrenched in our myths, what with Satan being heaved out of Heaven because he questioned God about something or other.

Clearly, the wrong questions cause embarrassment at a minimum and deeply troublesome outcomes when played out in more the environment of broader, institutional challenges. Questions can get people beheaded.

Part of the resistance to questions has to do with our expectations of instant responses to everything. But this is where those confounding Taoist-like riddles start kicking in. Because what rational person would truly expect there to be clear answers to everything when we can’t even come close to defining the Everything?

When it comes to questions, we’ve collectively trained ourselves to not ask them. We are still fumbling with the basics: “Who am I” and “Why am I here?”

On the other hand, when we (sometimes reluctantly) tilt the question-asking compass needle in the direction of business, it’s readily apparent why we encounter “question breakdowns” (used in the context of nervous breakdowns).

First, as Boyd and others point out, executives are all about having answers. So they will be all about setting up the ‘field of play’ in a manner that favors the favorable, engages the knowledgeable, or, at least, produces confident answers.

Second, executives and the rest of us are not trained in how to deal with the so-called Unknown. We’ve been conditioned since birth to only question and answer the known. Any question or answer that deviates from the known is marginalized, despite the claims of VCs and investors who, for example, value disruption and innovation. In my opinion, they only value the unknown as long as it fits within known parameters and risks.

And thus we encounter the paradox. Because in the world of business, anything unknown is a threat, even something so simple as a question. The answer to addressing this problem is not a constant reshuffling of variations of hiding our heads in the sand. Rather, it involves learning to embrace the unknown. Because there are far more answers, solutions and discoveries in the universe of the unknown than in the more finite worlds of the known.

The Millennials, in my opinion, haven’t realized this. But their generationally deliberate questioning of corporate, political and social paradigms and institutions are constantly bringing them into the shadow boundaries of the unknown. So why not address the obvious?

How to embrace the unknown is its’ own topic. But suffice it to say that incorporating the acknowledgement of the unknown in daily life has been deeply explored. Perhaps if someone can patent and monetize it, only then will it be viewed anew. In the meantime, if you want to be a more well-rounded person or a more versatile thought leader, consider the advantages of developing proficiency in the unknown.