There’s a line in a U2 song:
We thought that we had the answers
It was the questions we had wrong
We live in a world where the answer to a huge array of questions is just a few clicks away. There’s a massive expectation that typing a few keywords into Google will give us with all the knowledge that we need on the first screen. What’s more, we have access to all sorts of expertise and option through social media channels. Post a question on Facebook and you’ll get all sorts of people trying to help you find the answer.
For any of those answers to be useful, though, we need to ask good questions. If we ask an Internet search engine we need to recognise the limitations of the answers that are going to come back. Similarly, ask a bunch of Facebook friends and we need to recognise the limitations of their knowledge and their understanding of the question.
Asking good questions has been a bit of a topic for me, so I thought I would give a few observations:
Think about the question
If there are no stupid questions, then what kind of questions do stupid people ask? Do they get smart just in time to ask questions?
Scott Adams (1957 – )
I find that most people blurt questions out without thinking about them.
Giving some thought to the question will make for a much richer answer. It might even stop you asking a stupid question.
Set the context
If you are going to ask good questions you need to understand the context in which you are asking the question and form your question appropriately. There are many searches that you can do on the internet that result in unexpected, sometimes shocking, answers. In English there are lots of words with dual meanings which lacking context produce erroneous answers – right, crane, date, foil and type to name just a few. There are numerous situations where an answer may be correct in one country, but not in another. How about situations where the answer was true previously, in 1990, but is no longer true; laws change all the time.
Search for the questions
The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
You can only ask good questions if you know that the questions exist. Knowing that the questions exist requires an inquisitive mind. For me one of the most important aspect of feeding this inquisitive mind is reading. I regard most of my reading as reading to find questions. It can be tempting to read about things you know, but reading about things that are completely outside what you know helps to find better questions. If you don’t read broadly then you have a very narrow view of what the questions are. It’s often more exciting to find a good question than to find a good answer.
Ask the second and third question – Why?
Don’t be satisfied with the first answer, enrich the first question with a second question. “Why?” is often a good second question. “Why is that the answer?” This has two effects, it makes sure that you’ve got a good answer, it also opens up the potential for another questions. There are also great second and third questions to either side of the question you started with.
Form the question in a different way
Can you ask the question in a different way? If you do, does it get a different answer? Why does a different form of the question get a different answer? It could be because the answer to the question is more complicated than you thought it was. It could be because someone was answering a different question to the one you thought you were asking.
Answer with a question
Sometimes people want a straight factual answer, but there are times when it’s better to answer a question with another question. Creating this type of question requires great care – good questions open up the discussion and allow good answers to be found, poor questions sound like you are avoiding the original question.
Does that help? I really would like to know.