Asking Questions – why is it so hard?

How hard can it be to make a podcast?  Surely, all you have to do is choose a theme. find someone who is willing to talk on this theme, and then ask them questions. The guest then provides the answers. Job done!  Many podcasts have used this answer providing format. 

But what if you don’t want answers? What if, instead of providing your listeners with opinions or ready made solutions to a given inquiry, you would really like to support their ability to generate inquiry itself?  

Asking better questions is a skill we all need to develop for all areas of our life, and for long-living infrastructure decisions in a rapidly changing world it is critical.  These decisions impact the lives of many thousands, if not millions, of people and for many decades to come. Once built, they often cannot be un-built except at incredible cost, damage to the environment, and waste of resources. Moreover the ongoing costs of such structures are, as we know, determined by actions taken at the very earliest stages of decision making, when knowledge is lowest!

Some existing solutions will continue to be relevant as the world changes and others will not but how can we tell which is which?  Only by asking questions.  New questions.   Different questions.   Lots of questions!

If we ask the same questions we have asked before, we will get the same answers. And if we ask the same questions – blindly – simply because we have always asked them, we will not even be aware of the mistakes we may be making.

But question asking is hard.   

Surely not!  Any parent knows that young children ask questions naturally – and inexhaustibly!  However,  at some stage, parents get worn out with continual questions, many of which they do not find themselves capable of answering –  ‘why is the sky blue?’ ‘why do people die?’ etc.     So mothers start to say ‘Ask your father!’  and fathers say ‘Ask your mother!’  and both say ‘Not now, I’m busy’.  In other words we actively discourage question asking at home.  

This is compounded at school, where ‘teaching to the test’ has taken hold and teachers know that they have to instill a certain number of facts in their pupil’s heads lest they, themselves, receive a failing grade! In this grading environment, even well intentioned teachers may feel that time out for answering pupil’s questions let alone encouraging more questions, is time that they just cannot afford.

By the time students reach secondary school, they have learnt two things about questions – one, that it is not their job to ask them, and two, that they are to be feared!  Studies have shown that in a typical class teachers ask about 90 questions to one or two by students. And the teacher’s questions are designed to test whether what they have taught has been absorbed.  Such questions do not lend themselves to the fun of exploration, only the embarrassment and humiliation of wrong answers.

Now the students get a job and it is not long before they come to recognise that asking questions in this environment brings even more problems – asking a question may reveal how much you do not know, or asking a question, particularly of a senior, may seem as a challenge to ‘the way things are done around here’.  Better to keep quiet. By this time we have learnt how not to ask questions.

So if ‘not to ask questions’ is a learnt skill, how do we unlearn?

Those of you who are parents might like the story of Isidor Rabi who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance.  He credits his success to his mother who, whenever he returned home from school, would ask ‘Did you ask a good question today?  (from Hal Gregerson ‘Questions are the Answer’)

And we can do the same. 

We can ask ourselves – did I ask a good question today?

This is what our forthcoming podcast is designed to encourage.  Infrastructure decision making urgently needs good questions

– but so do we all!

4 Thoughts on “Asking Questions – why is it so hard?

  1. kim geedrick on March 15, 2019 at 11:44 am said:

    Asking good questions – great topic. Here is a quick hint that I use to assist in getting good questions.
    Ask the flip side –
    – if something happened, ask what if it didn’t happen.
    – if something is needed, ask what if we didn’t want it.
    – if something is broken, ask what if it didn’t break.

    This helps in ensuring people are not fixated on one view. It also helps in determining if you did ask a good question.

    This leads to the age old problem of bias – bias tends to cloud and distort outcomes because of bad questions. Wikipedia has a great compilation of biases. While there is no simple solution, at least it imposes a greater awareness of a person’s bias and the impact on the question being formulated.

    Happy questioning………..

    • Penny on March 15, 2019 at 3:21 pm said:

      Thanks Kim. Excellent questions! The questions we ask determine the answers we get. And this reframing prevents us going on the defensive and really opens up inquiry.

  2. Hi Penny

    I meant to add an example to my previous comment……see below.

    For asset managers, an example…..
    While it is informative to ask questions around why an asset failed eg a pipe section in stormwater drainage has exhibited a fracture and deformation, it is equally important to ask why the pipe section adjacent (and most likely a number of pipe sections in the same area) have NOT failed -ie the flipside question.
    The answer to the second part can provide information that may mitigate further occurrences eg what characteristics does this pipe section have (that made it resistant to failure) against the pipe section that did fail.
    Also, it is quite common that there are many more examples for the second question (pipes that did not fail) verses examples for the first question (pipes that did fail) ie the level of information is greater and thus more useful.

    • Penny on March 15, 2019 at 4:09 pm said:

      Yes, and I remember quite some years ago when Defence was arguing that some 80% of one of their fleets had past its ‘use-by’ date. Yet they were still flying without incident – or accident! So perhaps the flip question we need to ask for all of these ‘past their use-by’ arguments is ‘what does this say about our economic life estimates?’

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