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It’s hard to overstate the value of asking great questions.
Ask an educator in your life about the most common traits they see in high-performing students. Or, you could ask a leader you know the same question about their most valuable team members.
You’ll rarely hear an answer about innate talent, skill, or intelligence. Sometimes you’ll hear about work ethic, productivity, or ambition. But one trait that’s almost always there?
High-achievers ask great questions.
Questions signal to others your intention to grow. They give you an opportunity to understand, to challenge, and to relate. They show your investment and engagement in the topic at hand, and your ability to think critically about the situation.
By learning to ask more (and better) questions, you can alter your whole trajectory through life. Asking the right kinds of questions helps you to grow, to build your relationships, and to make crucial changes in your life. Read on for four of the best ways to mix more great questions into your day:
1. Ask questions to learn
Great questions have always been one of the most essential tools of the classroom. They are one of the greatest gifts that each generation of humanity has entrusted to its young ones. But of course, it shouldn’t end there.
We don’t go to school just to learn, we go to school to learn how to learn. Studying the impact of irrigation on the growth of Mesopotamian society in your ancient world history class in high school may have seemed completely useless, but it was in fact only mostly useless.
Color me surprised if anyone has ever prevented a mugging, won over a first date, or impressed their boss by dropping hot facts about ancient Mesopotamia. But we’re not here for facts, we’re here for questions.
Even though the topic itself doesn’t often breach the walls of day-to-day conversation, studying it in your classroom was an opportunity to hone your questions.
Explore new topics, indulge your curiosity, test how you can grow your understanding.
What you take with you is not just the facts you learn, but the skill you developed in questioning the topic. And if along the way you realize that consistent access to fresh water was the genesis of settled human civilization and set off a pattern of accelerating evolution largely uninterrupted to this day, well, all the better.
Asking strong questions, both in and out of the classroom, is a great way to share your curiosity and enthusiasm with others.
Indulge your curiosity. You will not only learn new things, you will become a better student of your world, and have fun doing it. Keep asking questions, and you will never cease to learn about the amazing world around you.
Try it out
- Dig deeper: When you learn something new, challenge yourself to come up with two questions to help you further understand it
- Be a detective: When you’re in a new place, study it. What does that knob do? Where does that door lead? Why is she the only one in a green uniform? Foster a curious mind.
- Silly conversation starters: Thought-provoking questions with no clear answers lead to new ideas, new understanding, and some good fun. Always have one in your pocket for social gatherings.
2. Ask questions to push back
If there’s anyone out there who’s like me, then this is one that you need to hear. And you’ve probably needed to hear it for quite some time.
The cards you’re dealt are rarely the only ones in the deck.
Life doesn’t always give you what you want. Sometimes that’s okay, and you’ve got to adapt and move forward. And there are also times where life’s got better stuff for you right behind the counter, and it’s just waiting for you to ask.
Use questions to challenge the hand you’re dealt. Questions are the sword and shield of a strong self-advocate.
If you don’t like the deals you’re getting, the interactions you’re having, or the job you’re being asked to do, then use questions to challenge those things. Most things don’t need to be the way they are; they just are the way they are right now.
“When life gives you lemons, don’t make lemonade! Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons; what am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am? I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down… with the lemons!”– Cave Johnson, Portal 2
The almighty status quo
Sometimes the deal you don’t want, or the job you don’t want to do, comes backed with the argument of “that’s just how you do it,” or “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Honestly, so what?
The status quo is not your burden to bear. You can always question the status quo if it doesn’t make sense to you or isn’t the right road for you personally. And so let those questions empower you to live the version of your life that you want to live.
“Hey, here’s the deal: When life gives you lemons, just say ‘fuck the lemons,’ and bail”– Forgetting Sarah Marshall
It’s always okay to use questions as a means of pushing back and advocating for yourself. When you question the lemons life gives you, you’ll either get back a more compelling reason to make lemonade, or (more often) realize that you don’t need those lemons at all.
Try it out
- Get a better deal: You can negotiate almost anything; it’s always worth at least a try to ask for a lower price, an extra perk, or a better upside on a deal.
- Do I have to: When you feel like you “need” to do or attend something professionally, socially, or otherwise, ask if that need is real or manufactured. Don’t give in to artificial pressure.
- Fight the power: Respect your bosses and authority figures, but know that they are human. They make mistakes, and misguided decisions, and it’s okay to push back and keep them accountable.
- Don’t make it easy: People offering you a bad deal often talk fast and use a variety of tactics to confuse you and create a sense of urgency to bully you into the deal. You can always slow them down and find the holes in the offer by asking careful questions.
3. Ask questions to listen
Sometimes questions are a tool you use to improve your thinking, and sometimes they’re a weapon you use to fight for yourself. But that’s not all they can do. They can also form a bridge for you to connect with other people on a personal level.
In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote what would go on to be one of the best-selling and most influential self-help books of all time: How to Win Friends and Influence People. Its thesis is as simple as it is meaningful:
People want to be heard and appreciated. Everyone wants to feel like their contribution to the world, and their life experience, is valued by others.
And you can give that to them, to everyone you meet. Shift your full attention to the person you’re talking to, listen, and ask them thoughtful questions. Give people room to share more of their story with you, and you’ll both be better for it.
Share the gift of questions
Picture a close friend in your life. Someone who is like family, who makes you feel warm, whom you trust. I’d bet dollars to donuts that this person is someone who listens to you. They give you the opportunity to feel heard; they take a genuine interest in you and ask you questions; and they remember the things you tell them about yourself.
The feeling you get from that friend, like you really matter and your life is significant, is something you can give back to your friend, and to the rest of the world, too! Love is not a resource that runs out as you give more away.
Every person you meet wants to feel heard and valued. Ask them more questions about themselves, and listen intently to what they say. You’ll learn more from them, deepen your appreciation and empathy for them, and a few will even take the example and want to be better listeners to you, too!
Try it out
- Find the passion: Listen and ask questions until you find what someone is really excited about; it’s usually pretty easy to tell. Then lean into that topic, ask more.
- Clarify: Before responding to someone, ask a question to check if you understood them correctly, even when it seems obvious. A huge amount of miscommunication, arguably all of it, comes from one person responding to what they think the other person said.
- Don’t over-relate: When we hear others talk, it’s very easy to think of connections back to ourselves. Resist the urge to change the subject to yourself, keep your attention on them more and pivot to yourself less (now and then is okay, though).
4. Ask questions to make intentional changes
You’ve learned how to question those who you want to teach you, those who you want to respect you, and those who you want to love you. We have only one subject left to interrogate: you.
Smarter and Harder is a blog about building a better life for yourself. To change the results we are getting out of life, we need to change the thoughts and actions we are putting into it. That’s a hard thing to do, but asking questions is the way to start.
I left this one for last because it is really a combination of the first three, squished together and turned around to face yourself. To make lasting positive change in your life, you need to understand yourself, you need to challenge your thoughts and actions, and you need to listen to yourself.
Breaking your paradigm
A lot of what we humans do happens automatically. We have habits, routines, and other automation to simplify the business of day-to-day life. This helps us streamline the day and conserve our mental energy.
But this internal automation can be hard to override when we want to change it. By definition, this stuff is happening without us consciously thinking about it. Autopilot doesn’t work so well if you’re still thinking about each decision, so a lot of it happens without us even noticing.
This is where the questions come in. Questioning yourself when you’re in the midst of a routine can help you interrupt it and choose a different course. You can be intentional about the change you’re trying to make.
Challenge your automatic choices to make intentional ones. Repeat this process until those intentional choices replace the automatic ones and become the new habits and routines. This is the recipe for lasting change.
Try it out
- Interrupt a routine: Try a challenge question: Why am I doing this right now? Do I have to do this? Is there something I’d rather do instead?
- What’s my motivation: What am I trying to accomplish here? Is there an underlying fear or anxiety I’m trying to address? How else could I appease it?