The lost art of asking questions

The lost art of asking questions


Ken Treloar photo / Unsplash

The Dalai Lama was sitting with a journalist for a q-and-a in his home in India. But 10 minutes into the interview, it became uncomfortably clear that His Holiness was getting drowsy. He was literally nodding off. After one chin dip he snapped to attention and signaled to an attendant, who dashed to the kitchen and returned with a strong pot of tea. The journalist stood up, took the tea and started pouring a cup for the Dalai Lama. But the Dalai Lama stopped him and said, No no, the caffeine is not for me. “It’s for you. So you’ll ask better questions.”

Ask. Better. Questions.

That should be a bumper sticker on the year 2018.

We live in a culture that overvalues answers, and so undervalues questions that asking good ones has become kind of a lost art.

Look at our media. Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose have left the building. The probing interview is dead. Now it’s all dueling answers: mine against yours, the Left’s against the Right’s.

In the Google era, answers are cheap and everywhere. There’s not much we don’t know — or at least, not much we can’t know in about two seconds. Boom. The collected wisdom of humanity right at our fingertips.

But Google, the great and powerful Oz, isn’t what it seems. Google is just a thin beam of light in the darkness. What’s revealed depends on where we point it. And mostly we just point it where other people have pointed it. So we all keep going over the same ground. We don’t know what we’re missing, because we don’t know what we don’t know.

That’s why it matters what questions you ask. Skillful questioning is a tool to help us organize our thinking around our own ignorance, as writer Warren Berger points out in his book A More Beautiful Question. It’s like a navigation App. It helps us see in the dark.

So what is a beautiful question? Often it’s the kind of question a kid would ask, if you dropped him into the middle of a dinner party of experts who thought they knew everything there was to know about their field. He, knowing nothing, goes right to the overlooked heart of things.

Why is it,” a high-school student in Tanzania named Erasto Mpemba asked his science teacher one day, “that when I put hot water and cold water in the freezer together, the hot water freezes first?”

This sounded so stupid that some of the students laughed. Even the teacher was pretty sure that wasn’t what happened when you put hot and cold water in the freezer. But he decided to run a test, just to be sure he was right. Lo and behold, he wasn’t right. The kid was right. So the teacher and the student published a paper on it together. The phenomenon — warm things freeze faster than cool things — was not unknown. But this student got his name attached to it. It’s now known as the Mpemba Effect. Because Erasto Mpemba was the one who asked the more beautiful question.

The world’s best questioners may be four-year-old girls. They ask, on average, 390 questions a day. “Why” upon “Why” upon “Why,” until you reach the atomic level of existence. Being a parent of a four-year-old girl is internationally recognized as the same as having a Ph.D in philosophy. It’ll drive you crazy following those turtles all the way down.

(It’s a mixed blessing that my two girls are no longer in the “Why” stage The questions have stopped. They’re no longer interested in our answers. So it’s a lot easier now. But kind of sadder.)

It turns out that the questioning drops off sharply starting the very next year . That’s because those kids are now in the school system. And now they can’t just blurt out everything you’re wondering. They have to sit on their questions until they’re called on. A lot of those questions die on the vine. And the wondering itself tapers off.

By adulthood, out in the real workaday world, people don’t ask questions much at all. Because questions are inefficient. They put the brakes on getting stuff done. We’d rather be charging off and doing things, even if we’re doing them wrong, rather than stopping to ask questions to figure out what we’re doing.

A Nobel Prize -winning physicist was asked, ‘Is there a difference between the way you were raised that enabled you to win a Nobel Prize?” Cal Fussman, the virtuoso interviewer, told this story on a podcast recently.

“The scientist thought about this. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘When I was a kid going to school, the other kids would come home and their parents would ask them, ‘What’d you learn in school today?’

‘Nuthin,’ those kids would say. End of conversation.

But when I got home, my parents asked me, ‘What good question did you ask in school today?’”

So just by changing the question, you can change somebody’s life,” Fussman said. “Because now the kid’s gotta be thinking when he goes to school, what is my question of the day?”

There are lots of reasons to try to rekindle that spirit of promiscuous questioning we all had when we were four. But here’s one I hadn’t thought of till I heard Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly bring it up:

Come the robot uprising, it’s our questions that will save us.

See, machines are already better than us at generating answers. They can crunch patterns and come up with brilliant solutions. We can’t really compete with them.

But they’re lousy at questions. Because asking great questions takes wisdom, which is different from intelligence. Wisdom isn’t about brute mental horsepower. It’s about judgment.

That’s our speciality. And our advantage. We’re experts at saying, “I wonder if” or “How might we…?” These are questions born of hunches. And hunches come from being alive in the world, just kicking the can down the road.

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