Are You Questioning Your Questions? (Maybe You Should)

Mind Professional

Are You Questioning Your Questions? (Maybe You Should)

by Dr. Marlene Caroselli,
Professional Self-Awareness Judgment Evaluate

You’ve heard it said a thousand times: “Great minds think alike.” And we find two brilliant men—one a theoretical physicist; the other, “The Father of Modern Management Science”—echoing one another’s thoughts. Einstein exhorted us, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” And Peter Drucker, the genius born 30 years later, reminded leaders that exceptional leaders "know how to ask questions—the right questions.”


Which questions are the right ones? Those that probe beneath the surface—either initially or subsequently. Those that expand upon a given answer. Those that create “spiralized” thinking—viz., the kind of thinking that refuses to accept a monosyllabic answer, that cause the listener, instead, to diverge into related arenas. (As Voltaire observed so many years ago, we should “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”) A derivative benefit that comes from asking the right question is this: because the question is usually not anticipated, it allows the questioner a chance to see and hear how well the respondent thinks on his or her feet.

Here are examples of questions that elicit further thought.

 In conversation:               “How are you liking your new job at the college?”
Answer:                             “It’s fine, I guess.”
The right question:            “What constitutes the ‘guess’ part of your reply?”


In a job interview:              

 “Tell me about a personal weakness.”

Answer:                  “I find that, while I can function adequately on a team, I prefer to work alone. And, I suppose, that could be construed as a weakness.”
The right question: “Why would you think that?”

In a PTA meeting:            “We’re in agreement, then, that our next step as parents is to approach the school principal and share our concerns.”

Answers:                          “Yes,” (Silence and nonverbal nods are all interpreted as affirmative answers to the question.)
The right question:           “What should our next step be?”  Or: “Are we overlooking something that should be done before we meet with the principal?”


During the Total Quality Management era, great emphasis was placed upon the Five-Why Technique. It’s a remarkably simple way of getting at root cause. The question doesn’t stop at the first answer to a question, but rather, continues to ask “Why?” until real reasons are revealed or new possibilities uncovered. Talichi Ohno and Sakichi Toyoda are both credited with having developed the method. Regardless of its parentage, however, the technique illustrates the value of below-the-surface probing. An example follows.

Instructor:          “This is the fourth time you’ve come late to class. Why is this happening?”
Student:             “I’m sorry, but my car broke down this morning.”
Instructor:          “Why?”
Student:             “I haven’t had time to take it in for maintenance.”
Instructor:          “Why?”
Student:             “I think I’ve overcommitted to and other meetups.”
Instructor:          “Why have you joined so many different groups?”
Student:             “I don’t like being alone, I guess.”
Instructor:          “Why?”
Student:             “I don’t have any hobbies.”

You can see that if the instructor had stopped at the first answer, she would probably have offered a polite request—“Please try to get here on time next week. It’s a little disruptive when you come in late.” But, by learning the actual reason for tardiness, the instructor could make some valid suggestions, such as ride-sharing with another student, or finding a repair shop that provides evening service, or even a class on living alone and liking it!


Essayist Joseph Joubert noted, two hundred years ago, that “questions show the mind’s range and answers, its subtlety.” You allow others to see into your brain when you ask and answer questions. Into your soul, as well. If you are the sort of conversationalist who is as interested in the other person as you are in yourself,  you abide by the 50/50 Rule. You spend about half your time in a conversation expressing your thoughts or opinions and the other half, in listening to the other person.

(Tip:  Ask a friend or close relative to count the number of sentences you use in a conversation with another person or the amount of time you speak during that conversation. The experiment could easily be done in a phone conversation when you are unaware your friend or relative is doing the count.)

Ideally, your conversations conform to the Spiral form of communication. Your questions invite responses that allow ideas to spiral upwards into new and interesting territory. The spiral questions are those identified by author Richard Bach: “Where is your home? Where are you going? What are you doing?” Even if you only ask the questions of yourself, you will come to understand why he regards such questions as profound, in part because the answer will change over time.



A final thought for anyone interested in improvement upon the current state of affairs. Princeton’s renowned astrophysicist/cosmologist John Bahcall knew that “the most important discoveries will provide answers to questions that we do not yet know how to ask and will concern objective we have not yet imagined.”  If your personal specialty or area of expertise is less concerned with the structure of the universe and the solar neutrino problem, you can still use questions to make discoveries that will improve operations, especially the way your workplace operates or the way your interpersonal relationships are developing.

Just consider what one multinational firm does to find the perfect applicants for given positions in their company. During the course of the job interview, the interviewer says something like this: “Actually we have several candidates for this job. And so, we’d like to have you join the others on a team. You will have five minutes to come up with as many answers as you can to one specific question.”

Once the applicants are assembled, they are asked, “How many ways can you think of to improve a bathtub?” The firm’s hiring officers sit in the back of the room and take notes on who assumes leadership, who inspires, who complains, who rolls up his sleeve and says, “Let’s get going,” who comes up with the most creative ideas, who works well in a team, and so on.

The second part of this challenge truly reveals the character and personality of the applicants. They are told they will now have one less person on the team and one less minute to get the job done. The job? The team has to come up with as many ways as possible to improve a bathtub—without repeating any ideas on the first list.

From time to time, it will behoove you to ask if your questions are the “right” questions. Doing so is one of the best ways to elicit “the right stuff,” no matter how that stuff is used.