Let’s face it, they’re pretty important. We all know that.
Where would we be as a species if no one had ever wondered how we might fashion natural materials into some kind of shelter against the elements. Or how we could work together to catch animals much faster than ourselves. Or why the sea moves closer to, or further away from, the land at certain times, revealing and then hiding edible sea life.
We could never have moved from our sub-tropical origins without the capacity to build. And without access to high protein, high energy food, many anthropologists now believe we would never have had the time available for dreaming, for what my colleague, Andrew Wilkie, called ‘incubating’ in a recent blog (http://trueplaceconsulting.com/2014/03/24/Idling-your-way-to-greatness). And with dreaming comes illumination, experimentation and invention.
So in essence, all civilisation, the sum total of human achievement, is down to our innate desire to use questions to encourage ourselves, and others, to think differently about the world.
But not all questions are created equal.
Some questions are simply mundane requests for factual information.
“Do you stock Dulux emulsion in ‘Natural Hessian’?” I asked in my local branch of a well-known DIY chain the other day, betraying the fact that I have recently moved house and even in my late 40s I lack the confidence to be more adventurous with colours. My question was not intended as the start point for a psychological discussion as to the root cause of my lack of decorative experimentation, nor did it lead to one (thankfully). “Aisle 2, bottom shelf. If it’s not there it’s out of stock” was all the answer I needed.
Other questions, though mundane, can take on different meanings depending on the context. Have you ever asked an English person “How are you?”. Of course you have. And the most probable answer? “Fine”, “very well thank you”, or the slightly annoying Americanism, “I’m good”. Even when you see someone you know in the waiting room at the doctors, and I did recently, an elderly neighbour who could hardly get up from his chair without becoming breathless, he maintained he was “fine” when I enquired after his health. Equally, despite the broken metatarsal that prevented me from walking without crutches and enormous man-pain, I also claimed to be “fine” when he returned the question.
Now ask the same question of someone from another culture. Whilst wishing to avoid lazy national stereotypes, asking a German the same question (“Wie geht’s Ihnen?” since you ask, and if you want to be polite) will more often than not lead to a summary of the health of the individual, occasionally in a degree of detail that might have been better saved for the doctor’s surgery itself rather than the waiting room.
Equally the question “Do you want another pint?” varies in meaning depending on who’s asking, and the intonation used. When it’s a mate, it’s Saturday afternoon, and it’s still an hour till kick off, then the answer is an obvious yes. But when it’s the wife, when she’s tired and has had enough of my increasingly rambling conversation (“Do you want another pint?”), the same question is best answered with a “no, not really. Shall we head home?”.
And then there’s children. Bless them and their questions. I know we should encourage them to be curious about the world, and we shouldn’t ever be dismissive of their questions, but when you’re asked for the 27th time whilst watching TV, “what’s he doing?”, “why’s he doing that?”, “why did she say that?”, “when does this finish?”, “why do we have to watch James Bond when X Factor is on the other side?”, “why do you care about seeing Fulham on the telly when you were at the game anyway and you know they lost again?” you are, I think, entitled to a feel a degree of frustration. Indeed, you do have this clear sense that these are not the questions that will prove vital to the future of human achievement.
So there’s plenty of examples of questions that are not so important, not so powerful. So that begs a question itself. What makes a great question?
There’s lots of answers to that. There’s lots been written on the subject by people with far more knowledge and brilliance on the subject than me. But one observation I’d make for what it’s worth, from my 30 odd years of adulthood, is that sometimes it can be as simple as asking the obvious question, but twist it before you ask it.
Why not, instead of why?
How could we do that, but in a way no one would expect?
Given that we are not able to ……, what’s stopping us if we….?
Twisted questions are much more likely to demand new thinking, reveal new knowledge, and much more likely therefore to generate creative answers.
A case in point.
I was in conversation the other night, over a beer or two, with a friend. A paediatrician at the local hospital, who specialises in child nutrition. A big issue for him and his colleagues is the growth in childhood obesity. A national concern, the UK media are constantly wringing their collective hands at the fact that something like 10% of UK children are clinically obese by the time they start school, a proportion that has doubled by the time those same children reach the age of 11, and grows further to more than one in four by the age of 16. The obvious question, and let’s face it our national newspapers can never be accused of not asking the obvious question, is why are so many young people getting fat? And for some newspapers, perhaps those aimed at the more thoughtful reader, they go on to ask what this will mean for individuals, and for society’s healthcare response in years to come?
But the better question, the twisted one posed by my nutritionist friend, was “why aren’t all young people fat?”.
Think about it for a moment. Ask “why are so many young people fat?”, and all that leads you to is a simple set of things to point the finger at – unhealthy foods, poor parental cooking skills, lack of physical activity, availability of sedentary leisure activities, a lack of positive role models and so on.
Twist the question, “why aren’t all people fat?”, and you begin to reveal solutions rather than causes, or at least the route to solutions.
Why is it that despite the same pressures to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, despite the same access to heavily marketed calorie dense foods, despite going to the same schools and being brought up by parents who are culturally similar, despite all this, why is it that three quarters of 16 year olds have not succumbed to obesity and remain on the whole pretty healthy?
Maybe there’s something different about those who do, and who do not, become fat. It might be physical (genetic perhaps), environmental (the micro-environment – access to a garden or to parks), attitudinal (being the sort of person who gives in to others, or someone who does as they please), or it might be down to tiny adjustments in parenting (giving children options rather than denying them things outright). It might be none of these, but what’s brilliant about the twisted question is that it makes you think about the possibilities, rather than closing down the debate as the news media are inclined to do (‘we have the answer’ they like to trumpet from their front pages. ‘Buy me for 30p and you can share in our wisdom’).
So next time you’ve been in a long meeting and you think you’ve reached a consensus, perhaps you’re already late for your next appointment, and a colleague throws in a question that begins “Why couldn’t we…?”, or “Why isn’t it….?”, or maybe just “Why not ……?”, instead of being tempted to close down the discussion and move on, it might be just the springboard that’s required to think differently about the problem, and to begin to create a solution that is still relevant, but completely unexpected.
Because the fact is, if we want our businesses to be enthralling to others, indeed if we want our lives to be enthralling, then we have to be enthralled by possibility. And the easiest way to do this is to twist your questions.