As referenced in our podcast, Talking About Marketing, I just finished listening to the 4th Edition of Marilee Adams outstanding book, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life and I want to share some insights that might be helpful in business discussions or even in your personal life.
Marilee Adams' core concept is simple to remember, powerful when it is applied, and you can spend a lifetime honing how to put it into regular and highly effective practice.
Adams argues that people can ask two kinds of questions of themselves, others, and the world:
- We can ask learner questions, which are motivated by a desire to increase our insight into (and appreciation of) whatever we are focused on
- Or we can ask judger questions, which are harshly critical of ourselves, others, or the world, and tend to confirm our existing beliefs and biases
Learner questions are concerned with discerning what is going on and working out how we can positively influence it, while judger questions diminish things to suit our existing view-point.
Learner questions in action
For example, when I was teaching, I might ask a student a question about a poorly executed essay they had submitted.
Learner: what were you trying to achieve, and do you Think you met your aims?
Judger: why did you write such an awful essay?
There were times when I desperately wanted to ask the judger question, but I consistently managed to ask the infinitely more helpful learner question.
As Adams says, we are all judgers in recovery, and we should always try to think through the question we are about to ask before we open our mouth (or start typing). It only takes a few seconds to reframe a judger question as a learner question, but it doesn’t happen unless we choose to value the open curiosity and contained ego that normally underpin learner questions.
In my current roles, as a Business Development Specialist and Mentor, I have started to perceive and apply learner questions in a new way that only became clear to me when I listened to Adams 4th Edition.
Asking learner questions
In too many educational and organisational settings, people learn that questions are weapons. Either a vague question is asked that can’t be answered specifically, to make the questionee look incompetent, or the questioner asks such a specific question that relies on their unique knowledge, which is also meant to make the questionee look incompetent. In both cases, the questioner is asking a judger question to demonstrate their dominance over the situation and the questionee.
We have all experienced the teacher who asks the improbable question to look clever, or the boss who asks the impossible question to stamp their power on the situation. In both circumstances, most of us learn to not answer any question unless it is directed straight at us, and to provide as vague an answer as possible, which is both sort of correct as well as sufficiently vague to not make us look like a threat that deserves further attention.
And then there are the people in authority who ask for opinions, which they promptly ignore before telling you what they want you to do. In this case, you can answer the question that comes before the suggestion, but what is the point when you know that your words will be ignored as the person in authority tells you what to do without any room for discussion, context, or recognition that you have experience and insights to offer.
When I work with a team to turn a problematic situation into an opportunity, or mentor someone to help them to develop their abilities into an expanded role, I regularly have to begin by repeatedly demonstrating that questions are helpful tools for insight and growth, rather than weapons of control.
I often have to start with some combination of the following:
I’m here to help you develop a solution, not to tell you what the solution is. What questions do we need to answer to work out what is going on? Do we understand the problem we are dealing with, or should we produce a bunch of questions to ask to clarify what we are dealing with? You’re the expert, and I want to hear the questions you want to answer to improve this situation.
You are the expert
I have so many variations of: you are the expert who can solve this. I’m just an expert in helping people work out how to apply their expertise to solve problems.
Asking learner questions empowers people to reflect on what they know and extend their awareness of what is possible. If you frame learner questions effectively, you will come across as curious and collaborative, which sets the stage for other people to behave in a comparable way.
If you use questions as weapons, or ignore people’s answers before making non-negotiable suggestions, you will end up having to do all of the thinking yourself, and you will end up becoming responsible for almost everything that goes wrong, because people will stop sharing their insights with you.
Ideally, learner questions are narrow enough to be answered and general enough to leave room for new insights. They propel cooperation and understanding, and they build dynamic momentum within a team.
You can either spend a few seconds making sure that you are about to ask a learner question, or you can spend hours cleaning up the mess that comes from not gathering and incorporating other people’s insights. And if you keep on ignoring answers and making non-negotiable suggestions, people will give up answering your questions.
Learning to ask learner questions will improve your outcomes, whether you are working alone, or with a team. The answer is not in asking questions, but in how you ask questions and why you avoid making suggestions.