I lived in a black and white world as a child, and that wasn’t just the TV. Having the correct answer and being right was highly valued in my family.
In wider, mainstream society, certainty was the prevailing norm. We knew how the world worked and we just had to press the right button to make it better.
This was stifling and instinctively I pushed to explore the greys, whilst also being caught up in a system that rewarded being bright (aka being right). So I challenged the status quo and stood up for injustice and those who were on the margins, arguing for enlightenment. But actually, this was just another form of being right…
Much, much later I started to discover the glorious colour of curiosity and the liberating power of questions (I was a late developer…). Having always tended to do my thinking on my own, this was a huge shift. I was used to exploring new territory – by myself – doing this with others was a different world where I felt vulnerable.
It was hard to disentangle the value I felt from coming up with the answer or solution – especially as a leader – from the breath of fresh air that came from seeing bigger perspectives and different angles that I couldn’t have found on my own.
Exploring through questions is so much more than having to find the single right answer. It opens the door to ambiguity, complexity and mutuality – the stuff of today’s world. Also it grows me and those I am working with.
It takes a lot of practice. One way to start – at least for me as a socially able introvert – is by preparing the questions before I go into a setting. For example before a phone call, a formal meeting or a gathering.
I also realise that what may seem obvious to me in the way I frame a question may not be so clear to others. Active listening – where are they and how did that land – and ruthless reflection aren’t for the faint hearted or those who want a quick fix. So just ‘collecting questions’ isn’t enough. The context, the person, the tone and the nature of the exchange influences the power of the question.
There is also a hierarchy of questions. At base camp there are closed questions, which however they are framed essentially only yield a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. They can be better than a statement because they do engage the other. But closed questions don’t open up the exchange and at worst can leave the other person feeling manipulated or pushed into a box.
In his book ‘A More Beautiful Question’, Warren Berger offers powerful insights into the questions that stimulate inquiry and spark breakthrough ideas. He highlights using higher level questions: why… what if… how… I find that while they can’t just be flung into a conversation, they can be offered with generous and gracious precision.
Developing Relational Maturity
The world we now inhabit has far fewer absolutes than we used to believe, though that doesn’t mean there are none. And the interconnections and creative possibilities are far greater than we could have ever imagined. However, we are still developing the interpersonal and relational maturity to stand up tall in this new field.
Of course questions can be used to manipulate or abdicate. And there are times when simply knowing what to do and doing it can save my life.
But which would I rather? Cling to a shallow sense of being right or engage with the vulnerability and hard work in framing powerful questions that open up possibilities?
When I am tired or stressed I know I swerve to rot – but I’d rather not. There’s a multicoloured world to cultivate.