Asking Questions

Language is power. It can both clarify or obfuscate, (even both at the same time). Asking the right questions the right way, and at the right time, will forward you in all phases of every kind of work.  

Socrates stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. He developed a teaching methodology based on questions. The socratic method is still one of the cornerstones of western thought, consisting of questions designed to elicit critical thinking. Hence the examined life. Epistemologies have multiplied through the centuries branching into evermore sophisticated systems of knowledge. For instance, our scientific method of research is based on formulating a ‘reasonable’ hypothesis and substantiating or disproving it by asking – as Socrates did – questions. Any research published today must be able to withstand an ingenious variety of query. Questions can be the most potent part of language that we use to get to the core of whatever it is we need to understand. Questions are pre-production, pre- action and can save ourselves from ourselves.

Why to use questions

An effective way to insure you do not veer off into the ether when you need to elicit specific information, is to have an arsenal of questions at your fingertips. Investigative journalism has provided us with these useful generalities:  a collection of words that help trigger the flow of what we need to know.
WHAT is it we are doing, making, buying? Looking for? What are the goals?
WHO is our audience, our user, our, buyer. Do they know they need this product? Are we going to create, or further an existing a need? Think toys, or breakfast cereal. Sugar.

Who is it we are trying to hire, what can we offer them. 
WHY would they want us? Are we even relevant?
HOW are we going to get them what they need? Materials.Distribution. Money.  
WHEN – the timeline, all timelines: the date, the loan, the initial report. The deadline.  
WHERE does the real story start, where should we be seen, where is the money……
Some of these words are different ways of asking the same thing. They will get us different responses, expose subtle facets, but of course there are pitfalls. A useful conversation is not the random application of a set of rote questions. The right question for the right situation. This is trickier than it sounds. We want to avoid false axioms as much as possible. For instance: The earth is flat because you can see it stretching along a horizontal plane. It took awhile to dispel that notion. There were long involved debates, and probably the right questions were asked on all sides. But it took time and an evolving science of observation to discredit. It is more difficult than we think to be outside of our own era.

Building your business

Consider the naming of pharmaceuticals – a wordsmith’s cornucopia – with a thin to nonexistent reference to the specific disease process. Yet every syllable is meant to inspire hope, relief, and cure. Bytuminol. Luminestra. Yes these are imaginary, but look at your own prescriptions. Names like these began their lives in the minds of individuals trying to find the correct way to present a concept or product. You can be sure that on one side of the equation were the business psychologists asking very specific questions as to how to get people interested, using direct to public as well as focused data. Who is likely to need this drug? Where are our markets? What economic class of people have this illness? Do we want an exclusive or inclusive sounding name. And so forth and so on. On the other side of this product equation are the bio-engineers saying: how do we make this? Where are we getting our materials from? Which research strand should we follow? Presumably the answers come from the body of knowledge on the particular subject at hand. And never forget the money people who will change the debate completely with their own queries.

If your business is involved with the public and your part of that business IS the public, say a ranger, social worker, journalist, or HR person, you need to get and give information in ways that an engineer does not. Human perception is shaped by culture and one person’s interview is another person’s interrogation. In fact interviews, where we want to elicit a special kind of information, are not so easily classifiable. WHY questions can be particularly tricky, and perceived as a request for justification (why did you set your little brother on fire) – in fact anything direct could be viewed as an attack or violating rules of politeness, alien to a particular cultural group. Questions that prompt revelation can be far more useful. An invitation to talk or write about ones concerns, history, experience could bring out more
information than a resume list, or at the very least offer unforced and interesting explanations of why some-one had to do something in a way that you prejudged as nonsense. People do not perceive value in the same way. The tone of the question is another ingredient of unparalleled importance. Even in our written pieces, cadence and tone come through rather clearly – (always to be remembered when writing a memo). Inter-work communication needs to reflect an understanding of tone and how to keep conversation flowing in useful ways. And it will be vary from business to business. ‘How did you do this’ said one way is quite different than ‘how did you do this’ in other way. And it is far away from ‘why did you do this’, which elicits a changed viewpoint. How implies approval, and moving on to an interesting explanation of the scenario. Why is more probing of the purpose.

Start ups need to be pragmatic and open minded as to the real value of their initial idea. Some business classes address this very issue, having the students try out their ideas on the random public. And doing so over and over relentlessly. This technique is not to be consigned to the waste bin after school, as statistically one of the most important reasons for start up failure is that the Great Idea was perhaps not so great. It was ahead or behind its time, it was actually silly, it did not provide an answer to any conceivable need. It was poorly presented. It was just plain wrong. The list goes on.We have a great attachment to our creative developments, it can be difficult to vet them throughly, Especially important to do before we begin to put real money on the line.

Be Purposeful

In summary, never stop asking questions and try to ask the right ones. In all of their iterations, questions will provide us with some sort of answer. Use that answer to help create a workflow that is collegial and will further the goals of the group or business. Have the front end align with the backend, with a reasoned consensus on important issues. Using language thoughtfully and with purpose helps prevent unintended consequences. Always be aware of hidden motivation when responding to a question. The ethics of hidden purpose might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for that we can revisit Socrates  – and with humbleness:  his questioning  was always in pursuit of truth, and that which would enable us to live in harmony.

AAI Staff
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