It’s Official -
There are More Questions than Answers

Asking questions is child’s play – as anyone next to an enquiring three year old knows! When someone poses a question our brains want to answer. How many of us have found ourselves distracted from something we are deeply engrossed in to answer a sudden unexpected question like “anyone got the number for …? Questions direct the focus of our attention. It stands to reason then that the questions we ask ourselves and colleagues, direct what we think about and how we think about it.

I am reminded of the story about the American and Russian response to a problem during the space-race. Astronauts need to write down things while in space. Ordinary pens don’t work in zero gravity. The Americans asked ”How can we make a pen work in zero gravity?” and went on to spend millions of dollars developing a pen that pumps ink to its nib. One unintended consequence is that people can now write graffiti on ceilings too! The Russians asked “How can we write down data in space?” and gave their astronauts pencils.

The key difference is being clear about the outcome you want.  Then you can pose the right question to focus your attention and energy most effectively. Getting clarity about the outcome wanted is a very useful skill. For leaders of organisations who influence the working lives of many other people, getting clear about the desired outcome is essential for organisational health and prosperity. We spend a lot of time reviewing the data we have collected to answer questions but how much time do we spend reviewing whether we asked the best question to start with?

In the world of NLP (Neuro-Linguist Programming which, amongst other things, studies how people produce excellent results) one of the most fundamental questions is “What do you want?” This can be surprisingly difficult for people to answer. Usually it is easier to answer some slightly narrower versions of this question like:

  • What do you want to happen?
  • What do you want to hear from someone/see them do?
  • What do you want to be true in x months time?
  • What will it take for you to ……?

Asking these simple questions helps us articulate the outcomes we want. This is excellent starting point whenever we face choices, or are planning a communication or how to use our time.  These questions also typically lead on to useful follow-up questions such as “how ?” 

A book I was reading recently talked about questions leading us on to distinct paths or tunnels, some of which lead to rich and rewarding new places and some of which lead to dead-ends. It pays to take time to understand your desired outcome and frame the right question from the beginning.

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