The title of this post isn’t intended as a riddle, rather contemplative. It can almost be guaranteed given extensive publications on the topic of questions—each of us has come across at least one article, podcast, webinar, book, live stream, etc. discussing the benefits of asking questions as well as the different types (e.g., open, closed, clarifying, leading). A Google search of “why ask questions” generates about 2.4 trillion results ranging from academic articles, grade school educators guiding their students through a hermeneutical evaluation of assigned reading, business advisors, professional coaches, and behavioral therapists to name a few.
I am told, after “mommy” the second word I spoke was “why”. It is a running family joke I came into the world asking “why” and my curiosity has never been quenched. For me, I find it most valuable to hear what others think and understand their point of view as a primary objective. Those closest to me for whom I share “twinning” moments and often finish my sentences, invest an equal amount of time in questions of me. The mind and soul are too complex to infer meaning. Understanding is essential. Why? Respect. Clarity. Demonstrated engagement. Shared learning. Exercised active listening as opposed to passive hearing. Of course, the reasons to pause and ask questions is more comprehensive than listed here and exponentially more worthwhile.
I offer the following example for consideration. Recently, someone close to me had considerable dental work done. The day following the procedure, they began to experience several symptoms. After prompting and cajoling, this person eventually messaged the dental office to alert them to the symptoms. Excerpted from the message:
Patient: I am wondering if the *** are new because the other [procedures] I did not have these reactions.
Doctor’s Office: The ***have not changed.
The patient asked a closed-ended question satisfied by a yes/no. While the doctor’s office response was accurate in that the current treatment had not changed from the previous, the treatment causes allergic reactions which develop over time.
Rather than asking if the treatment was the same, the patient could have asked what the previous treatments were (past and present). While a subtle difference between what was asked and the alternative, the answers would have given additional information and clarified the source of symptoms rather than a rubric yes/no.
I propose, the study, science, and intent of asking questions is worth the relational investment, even if it’s a passing exchange, to foster dialogue and goodwill. Not merely answer a question. It is worth noting curiosity and questions, such as Socratic Questioning, when applied in the professional setting to facilitate transformational change may provoke an unfavorable reaction and result in negative perception of conversations as “interviews”. In some cases, such reception occurs when organizational culture (even limited to a team) is unaccustomed to divergent perspectives, unverbalized power distance, job uncertainty, and many other factors. Somewhat like self-reflection, open-ended questions can unearth inconvenient opportunities for improvement and generate a cascade of outcomes which leaders must be prepared for.
“Sometimes, when you don't ask questions, it's not because you are afraid that someone will lie to your face. It's because you're afraid they'll tell you the truth.” ― Jodi Picoult
As questions demonstrate respect and a desire for clarity, it is just as important how the answers are handled. Just because a conversation may not be delicate or sensitive, by corporate standards, that does not mean someone does not feel vulnerable. It is a fine balance among acknowledging personhood, executing on transformational change whilst remaining true to the organization’s founding principles, and keeping the looking glass clean for reflection. It is important to have as clear a picture of the corporate culture as possible to ascertain how effectively one can move the transformative needle without unduly causing harm.
While not everyone is going to be as interested in people as I am, perhaps others can take a bit of time to invest in their sphere of influence and seek to learn from others as their extended network of learners.