Last weekend while visiting our son at St. John’s College in Santa Fe NM, A lecture on Socratic method by author and tutor Richard McCombs challenged me to think even more deeply on one of my favorite topics — questions! The gist of what he said:
- Questions make us receptive to some courses of thought and action — and unreceptive to others
- Therefore, we must make sure we are asking the right questions
- It’s critical that we ask questions in the right order
- All objections are really questions in disguise
- Without questions, learning is incomplete and superficial
- If we want to take charge of learning, we must master questions
Wow. Could this be any more relevant to my clients’ businesses? Or to my own? Not to mention to the political conversation swirling around us in this election season!
When businesses get stuck in stressful situations, it’s virtually always because:
- We stopped asking questions
- We didn’t recognize the essential unasked question
- We asked the wrong question or asked questions in the wrong order
An architecture firm in the Pacific Northwest landed a big new client in 2010. Did I say big? This one client has brought nearly 12 times the workload they had been handling. By Q2 of this year, the company had more than quintupled in size. There is a new level of pressure and stress, as well as greatly increased complexity. Yet, there was still an expectation that they should be able to run as nimbly as ever.
It’s probably obvious to you that this is impossible.
But they are so much in just-get-it-done mode they can’t see it. Meanwhile, tempers are short. Internal and external conflicts are escalating. Demands and complaints are increasing. They are pushing harder and harder, but they weren’t asking any powerful questions.
Their problems are actually questions in disguise. See if you agree that the following questions are implied by their challenges:
- What expectations are reasonable?
- How could we better manage client expectations?
- How could we better manage internal expectations?
- When should we say no?
- Do we have the right people in the right places?
- Who needs to have our process clarified?
- What role should leadership play?
- What kind of culture would be most productive and how do we create it?
Can you imagine what new possibilities might surface, what changes might be implemented if leadership were asking — and encouraging — these kinds of questions?
If we want to take charge of the growth of our businesses, we must master questions. If we want to take charge of our profitability, of our productivity, of staff, of clients, and yes, even of our families and our lives, we must become masters at asking the right questions.
Here’s my edited version of what McComb recommends:
- Make a deliberate effort to ask many questions.
- Question your questions. Ask whether you are asking the right questions or good questions or what other kinds of questions you might ask.
- Think of your efforts to learn as not just trying to answer questions, but trying to discover and understand better questions.
- Talk to people in a way that invites them to ask you questions.
- Imagine what questions other people, real or fictitious, might ask you.
- Try to figure out what questions you are asking without realizing it. What questions are other people in similar situations asking themselves? What questions are organizing the world around you?
Start by asking yourself: What questions do I need to ask now?