The Power of Asking Questions

Victor Thompson | May 16, 2023 | Blog | 4 minute read

Children are naturally curious.  Spend a few minutes with any toddler and you will likely get many more questions than answers.  “What is that?” “How does that work?” “When can we go?” The list goes on and on.  In fact, research has shown that children ask an average of 300 questions a day.  However, as children enter school, they often encounter a different expectation: that they should listen to what the teacher says and accept it as truth.  Furthermore, many teachers and parents feel pressure to provide answers to children’s questions rather than encouraging them to explore and discover on their own.

As a young parent, I often found myself complying with this cultural norm.  I used to think, I should “know all” the answers.  My wife and I have the privilege of raising four wonderful daughters.  By the time our fourth daughter was born, we were deep into the world of minivans complete with dropdown mini-TVs that the children could view from the comfort of their passenger seat. One day, my youngest daughter who was about three years old, came home after riding in her pre-school friend’s parent’s car.  When asked how her visit was, she replied that she was sad for her friend and asked me “when will Anni’s car get fixed?”  To this I was more than a little stumped and attempted to discover what she meant.  Yet, I failed to satisfactorily answer her question. After all, Anni’s parents had brought her back home safely.  About a week later, Anni’s mom stopped by to drop Anni off for a play date.  My daughter anxiously pulled on my arm to follow her to the car.  “Daddy, see what I mean.  Their car is broken.  There’s no TV in their car!”

Being conditioned to have the “right” answer is a sure way to miss out on growth and learning.  Sadly, many leaders see their role as one of “know all” or being the one with the “right” answer.  One leader I coached informed me during our first session that “It’s faster if I just give them the answer”. The problem with this approach is that information only flows in one direction.  It also may lead to team members shutting down, losing connectivity with the organization and its’ purpose, feeling less important, less engaged and more isolated.  Ultimately, this drives subpar performance and the inability to tap into the potential of those contributors.

I recently heard a speaker reference a study regarding asking questions versus giving answers.  The study found that there is a dramatic decrease beginning in the second grade with children asking questions in school.  The research concluded that one of the chief reasons for this is that children are almost exclusively rewarded for what they “know” and not for being curious about what they don’t know.

Fast forward to adulthood and it’s all about what you “know” is “right” and not for wondering if the topic being discussed can be enhanced, improved upon or serve more usefulness to others.  Adults don’t ask 300 questions on average a day.  They don’t even ask 30.  In fact, studies on adult communication patterns have found that adults ask an average of 12 to 20 questions per day.  This is a decrease of over 90% from our curious childhood selves!

Yet, research points to asking questions as being an essential part of learning. Asking questions help to stimulate curiosity, engage critical thinking skills, and promote deeper understanding of whatever we are exploring…even why some cars do not have TVs in them. When we ask questions, we are actively seeking new information and perspectives and this process helps us to develop a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the topic at hand. It also helps us to identify gaps in our knowledge and areas where we need to focus our attention in order to gain a better understanding.  And consider that asking questions also helps to promote active engagement and critical thinking skills that are essential for building effective teams.

Overall, asking questions is a powerful tool for leaders.  Here are five ways leaders can use questions to build inclusive team environments and enhance workplace engagement:

  1. Ask questions to foster a culture of curiosity and continuous learning.  Leaders who ask thoughtful questions encourage their team members to think critically, explore new ideas, and seek out answers. This promotes a culture of curiosity and continuous learning, which is crucial for staying ahead of the curve in today’s fast-paced business environment.
  2. Ask questions to assist in building trust and strengthening relationships.  When leaders ask their team members for input and ideas, it shows that they value their opinions and expertise. This helps to build trust and strengthen relationships, which is essential for effective teamwork and collaboration.
  3. Ask questions to uncover hidden opportunities and solutions. Sometimes the best ideas and solutions come from unexpected sources. By asking questions and listening carefully to the answers, leaders can uncover hidden opportunities and solutions that may not have been apparent otherwise.
  4. Ask questions to promote innovation and creativity.  Leaders who ask thought-provoking questions can stimulate creativity and innovation within their team. This can lead to new products, services, or processes that help the organization stay competitive and meet the changing needs of customers.
  5. Ask questions to improve decision-making.  By asking questions and gathering diverse perspectives, leaders can make more informed and effective decisions. This helps reduce the risk of making costly mistakes and improves the chances of success.

Socrates is credited with arguing for the necessity of probing individual knowledge, and acknowledging what one may not know or understand.  I believe there is a certain magic in asking questions because questions seek to understand; to clarify, frame and evaluate.  On the other hand, answers, at their best, are temporary responses whose relative quality often decays over time.  What we “know” today is frequently in need of reformation tomorrow as the world changes.

Furthermore, what we believe we “know”, or think is “right” likely our opinion soaked in years of stating our beliefs as fact.  Given these factors, leaders can be frontrunners in not only asking questions of others but also displaying a willingness to question their own beliefs and biases and seek out diverse perspectives.   Additionally, questions, especially open-ended ones, stimulate an information exchange combined with a level of collaboration that connects, engages, and includes team members to unleash their potential within. So today, rather than providing all the answers, consider adopting an alternative leadership practice and ask questions.  And then perhaps, indulge yourself in another transformative skill: listening.