Graham Birkenhead, July 28 2021

Which comes first: the answer or the question?

I have been thinking about the subject of ‘asking questions’ quite a bit lately. As a consultant, it is a significantly important part of how I operate. It is also a key skill for anyone in a leadership position; while it is straight forward to ask a question that generates an answer, some questions can generate deep understanding, or unleash huge creativity and energy, and create business changing ideas.  The Polaroid camera came about by a 3-year-old asking her father “why can’t I see the image straight away?”  Nowadays, it is the norm to see an image immediately, but in 1943, when Edward Land’s daughter asked the question, it was a radical idea. 

We often think of ‘questions and answers’ as a pair – they just go together.  However, there is much more to this very human activity than may be immediately apparent.  

The question.  Why do we ask questions? - think about that for a moment or 2 before reading on.

There could be many reasons:  Because we want an answer?  Perhaps we want to know what someone else knows?  Maybe we want to get to know someone, to explore the other person’s mind, or their experiences?  How about we want to explore the world beyond what we already know or have experienced and maybe enter the world of ‘I don't know what I don't know’?  Did you come up with something else? 

It’s not the question, it's the asking.  Asking a question is quite a responsibility, the question is valuable tool, and used unwell can limit or waste a valuable resource – someone else’s mind.   Conversely, used well, it can unleash huge creativity and energy.  The question itself is just a string of words used to convey a thought from one person to the other. It's how and why we ask that question that makes all the difference. Do we have a genuine and sincere interest in the other persons opinions or ideas or knowledge; have we tailored the question so that it stands the best chance of being understood by the receiver?  Will the other person ‘enjoy’ thinking about and answering the question? Will it fire their imagination, and give them permission to look beyond the box? 

The answer.  Sometimes, you do just need a yes or no, a fact or a figure or a simple opinion, something that can be plucked from the front of the mind.  But your question may require deeper thought, the person providing the answer may have to stray into the unknown, the uncomfortable, or even into a realm of perceived risk.   How you have asked or framed the question, including the sincerity of your intent, could have a huge impact on the mental, emotional and time investment the person makes in formulating an answer for you. 

It’s not the answer, it’s the listening.  The answer, like the question, is just a string of words.  Being a good listener is a key skill in itself.  Focus on the words being spoken to you, rather than your own thoughts, tune-in to what is not said just as much as what is said. Let the person answer, acknowledge to show you are listening and encourage when the other person falters as they often will when conveying raw thought. 

It’s not the listening, it’s the hearing.    Truly hearing what you have just listened to takes us back full circle to the genuine and sincere interest you have in the answer and the person providing it.  Also, the person providing the answer ‘feels heard’; this can be a most powerful element of building relationships and building trust, whether you are trying to develop or inspire your team, make a sales call, or get a second date (apparently). Once you have heard, it is easier to generate follow-on questions – the conversation, the learning, and the trust flow. 

“Question everything” Einstein advocated.   He also said that “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know”.  The world around us is a rich source of knowledge and potential; the future is ours to create, and it is there for the asking: ask well.  


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Written by

Graham Birkenhead

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