November 14, 2017
‘Answers are overrated: questions are what really matter.’ You might expect a philosopher to say that. After all, the history of philosophy traces the contours of curiosity rather than certainty. But taking a moment to consider the value of questions is something from which anyone can benefit.
Before the value of asking better questions is considered, though, we must own up to the fact that we humans love answers.
To some extent, this makes sense. Obtaining answers, even if false, can help us feel safe, secure, and in control. In contrast, admitting that we have unanswered or difficult questions may bring a feeling of vulnerability, and in some instances, shake the very foundations on which our work, identity and relationships are built.
But while answers may seem more attractive, we should pay attention to the questions we are, and are not, asking. Life’s most interesting, and enlightening moments, involve a good question: ‘do you love me?’, ‘what might happen if we did things differently?’, or ‘is this work worth doing?’.
Answers certainly matter, but it is questions that make space for meaningful insights and innovation.
Actually, not all questions are created equal, and if we want to make the most of life, we need to cultivate the art of asking good questions. But what makes for a good question? To begin, three characteristics present themselves.
The most foundational feature of a ‘good’ question is that the individual, or group, doing the asking really means what they ask. We have all been asked false questions — queries where the one doing the ‘asking’ isn’t really proposing a question at all, but rather asserting something about themselves, their knowledge or their superiority. Such ‘questions’ reveal more passive-aggression and ego than curiosity. Dishonest questions shut down opportunities for collaboration and knowledge sharing. It can be difficult to do, but care should be taken to ask honest questions.
Not all good and honest questions are life-changing. Some, such as ‘how was your day?’, are simply the fabric of day-to-day living. But if we are to glean the most benefit from asking good questions, the extent to which we are asking the questions that really need to be asked should be considered. Here we might begin by asking ourselves: ‘Could the voicing of this question draw attention to an issue I, my family, or the company in which I work must to address?’.
If we are trying to ask honest and necessary questions at times that really matter, there is a good chance we will need to muster a healthy dose of courage. It is easy and normal to seek a more comfortable way out. Perhaps we cloak our true question in vagueness, complexity or simply utter quarries a bit under our breath. But for a good question to really do its work it must be out in the open.
Of course, questions are in the business of seeking answers, and answers are, of course, also important. But one of the gifts of philosophy is the benefit of asking good questions. Doing so can ignite change and re-energise parts of life that have become dull. In fact, it is often through refining questions that answers present themselves. So, ask, keep asking, and ask again. And if you’d like some help, have a look at the training on how to Think Laterally from Philosophy at Work.
A version of this article originally appeared in Balance Magazine.