It’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.
– Bertrand Russell
Of all the punctuation marks at our disposal, the question mark commands a special place. Everything else — the period, the comma, the dash, the off-neglected semi-colon — are all intended to give us pause, move things along, nose in a thought, or bring things to a close.
But a question mark turns things around. It flips it back to us to consider. It does not presume an answer, but invites one of your own.
I remember a TV commercial from my youth in which a restlessly curious young boy pesters his father during the day with an interrogation of innocence on some of the most mundane or routine activities of the day – everything from why cereal floats in the bowl to why the oil needs to be changed in the car. His inquisition is inexhaustible. At the end of the day, he queries his dad with an even bigger puzzle: “Dad, why is the sky blue?” Sure, the reason has to do with patterns of light refraction (an answer that escaped the exasperated father at that point), but the question carries more value than the answer. What else to we take for granted without exploration; what else is worth understanding, even challenging. How many other blue skies do we have around us that nary attract our attention or critical thinking?
“We’ve always done it this way” becomes an entirely different conversation when it is “We’ve always done it this way?” “I have no time right now” is an exercise is self-assessment when it is “I have no time right now?”
Asking questions — even when we are panting to blurt out what we are convinced is the right answer — is the hallmark of someone who has leapt the chasm between knowledge and intelligence, between ego and learning. Having the answer right at hand salves our desire for efficiency, but it does not foster learning so much as does a question.
Asking questions — and letting them twirl gracefully in the silence — prompts others to consider an answer for themselves. It allows you as a leader to gauge the knowledge and problem-solving acumen of your team. It shifts ownership of the problem to them, where they too can wrestle with it, and come to fresh learnings and even better answers than you might have on hand.
Almost any statement we might want to make as a leader can be posed as a question, if we slow down long enough to frame it.
Try it. Spend a whole week doing nothing but asking questions instead of making statements or having answers. You may drive people nuts, including yourself.
You might even feel stupid.
Consider that coming up with a great question (and not assuming you know the answer) is way harder than coming up with an easy answer.