We all know that kids ask a lot of questions. But here’s the real mystery: Why don’t adults ask more questions? Blame it on a grown-up world that tends to put more value on having answers than asking questions. Many of us think of a “questioner” as someone who’s more a thinker than a doer, whereas the successful go-getter is supposed to be confident, decisive, and certain. But in my research on the power of inquiry for my book A More Beautiful Question (Bloomsbury, March 2014), I learned that asking challenging questions—of others, and particularly, of oneself—can actually fuel greater success in business and in life. "How?" you ask? Great question, and here is a five-part answer:
Questions can help you get things done. This may seem counterintuitive for those of us who associate questioning with being uncertain or tentative. But studies have found that people are more likely to do a task if they pose it to themselves as a question rather than a command. So instead of telling yourself, “I must do more networking,” ask yourself, “How might I do more networking?” Wording it as a question turns it into a challenge that your brain almost can’t help working on. Before you know it, you’ll come up ideas that you’re more likely to act upon.
Questions enable you to solve problems. When we’re faced with any kind of problem or situation where we don’t know how to proceed, the act of forming questions serves to “organize our thoughts around what we don’t know,” according to the Right Question Institute, a research group that studies questioning. In my research, I found that expert problem-solvers (including inventors, entrepreneurs, and tech innovators) often work through a progression of inquiry that first asks, “Why is this a problem?” Then they use “what if” and “how might I” questions to hypothesize about possible solutions.
Questioning is associated with business success. The business consultant and author Hal Gregersen has studied thousands of creative business leaders (like Amazon chief Jeff Bezos) and has found that one of the key characteristics is that they ask many questions. Rather than slowing them down, this “turbocharges their success,” says Gregersen. Not only does questioning enable leaders to solve problems, it helps them explore fresh opportunities and lead their companies in new directions.
Questions can help you find your true purpose and passion. For many of us, trying to be successful is about moving forward. But sometimes you need to step back and ask, “Am I on the right path?” Entrepreneurs and top business execs I interviewed say self-questioning is critical to make sure you’re pursuing the opportunities that are best for you. Ask yourself questions like: "What have I always loved to do?" "What am I doing when I’m at my best?" and "What do I want to be known for, years from now?"
Questioning can help you adapt and adjust in a rapidly changing world. To achieve and maintain success today you can’t rest on your expertise. Because of technology and other rapid-change factors, industries and jobs are constantly evolving to require new skill sets and fresh approaches. So we must now be lifelong learners, adapters, and questioners—always asking, "How can I take what I know and update it?" "What new skills should I add to my arsenal?" and "Where do I go from here?" For those who embrace questioning, change becomes less scary—and instead offers a welcome opportunity to inquire, learn, and keep getting better.
Warren Berger is the author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.