The question grown-ups need to ask more often

woman raising her hand to ask a question

It’s OK for grown-ups to ask questions too.

The endless ‘why?’ A simple question-turned-communication-strategy used by kids everywhere to drive adults crazy? Or are kids on to something and we can learn from it too?

I watched a great video on Upworthy earlier this week about questions and answers. Writer Margaret Elysia Garcia gave an entertaining and poignant reading at a Listen To Your Mother event last year in San Francisco, on her determination not to answer her kids’ questions in the same way her parents had answered hers. [Read more about Upworthy here and follow them on Facebook here.]

When Garcia described her dad (beginning at about the one minute mark), she was talking about my dad too. I grew up with an engineer who, to give him his props, is a good communicator most of the time. But sometimes, the answers to our kid questions were a bit much. “Why’s the sky blue?” my brother and I once asked. We probably would have been okay with something a bit more straightforward than wavelengths and the inverse proportionality of light scatter.

But, while there are many things we could learn from this example (here’s a hint: know your audience), the big lesson here for me is the importance of asking questions as adults.

Garcia tells a story about what happened when her daughter told her that her lesbian grandmothers couldn’t get married.

In the context of the gay marriage debate in the U.S. (thank you, Canada for ensuring this is a non-issue where I live) and her own parents’ approach to questions and answers, I can see why Garcia heads down the path she does in her response. But, what transpires is a great illustration of how, as adults, we don’t ask ‘why?’ as much as we need to (I don’t want to give away the ending so please watch the video to see for yourself).

Simply put, kids ask ‘why?’ to expand their worlds and to get their way. Put that into a grown-up work context and it translates into asking questions to understand a problem or situation and from there, influence outcomes.

I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve been in where people are talking about a problem and trying to come up with a solution… and they haven’t asked any questions! Too often as adults, we’re scared to do so for fear of looking stupid or being judged. But if we don’t ask questions, how do we understand anything? Where does it say that learning stops when we can tie our own shoelaces, pay our own rent or meet in a boardroom?

Garcia’s story perfectly illustrates the importance of questions in any interaction. When we make assumptions when something’s not crystal clear, we waste time and effort. At work, questions (and answers) are valuable currency. As many of my clients will tell you, I like to ask a lot of questions. And not just to benefit me. More often than not, my questions stimulate my clients to think about their challenges and opportunities from different perspectives, and when this happens, we all win (learn more about working with me here).

So next time someone says something you don’t get, channel your inner kid and ask ‘why?’ Chances are other people will be wondering the same thing and you’ll be the smartest person in the room.

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