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Smarter Questions

Steven Pinker is talking about curse of knowledge. The difficulty in imagining what it’s like for someone else to know something that you know. We overestimate familiarity with our little world.

Insight agent is someone who can help companies communicate more effectively, to make judicious use of data in their storytelling but still sound like human beings.

Columbo questions ask: Just one more thing … is there anything that I haven’t asked you that I should have asked you?

Understanding depends on empathy because it’s only by putting yourself into the shoes, the mind, the mindset of others, that you can truly understand what it’s like to be them.

What’s all the fuss about?

Stoic mindset is when one accepts that we can only control our response to events not events themselves.

Start from a point of relative ignorance. Source evidence and data about a topic by asking progressively better-informed questions. Sift, sort and select information, into observations, then insights. Repackage and reorder inputs into easily understood, creative solutions that address the topic.

The daily noise: we are overwhelmed by information.

The power gap: the divide between the powerful and the powerless is widening. We feel locked out.

The way modern media is architected means the reach and behavior of demagogues gets louder and amplified.

People don’t stop to ask smarter questions. They don’t wait for answers. They shout as loud and as intimidatingly as they can in an attempt to browbeat, bully or coerce others into submission.

Julia Dhar’s TED Salon: DWEN talk is called “How to have constructive conversations.”

  • At least one party in a heated debate needs to be willing to choose curiosity over clash.
  • Trate a discussion as climbing wall, not a cage fight.
  • The discussion needs to be anchored in purpose.

The why? Question is What’s the purpose of asking questions? The when? Question is When might it be helpful to ask smarter questions?

What’s the purpose of asking questions:

  • To understand others.
  • To make sense of the world.
  • To understand our place in the world.
  • To seek and obtain clarification.
  • Because we are nosy.
  • To satisfy our curiosity.
  • To challenge something, you don’t think is right.
  • To reveal and make sense of casual relationships.
  • To determine whether there are patterns in the data that support or reject our hypothesis.
  • To gain or share perspective.
  • To understand what others think about a topic or issue.
  • To clarify what we think about the topic or issue.
  • To gather specific information.
  • To build on the specific information you obtain and start to set it in context.
  • To piece together a story and test its coherence.
  • To reveal agendas that could otherwise remain hidden.
  • To get beneath the surface.
  • To understand the root cause of an issue or event.
  • To surface and articulate genuine insights into the lives of those we are looking to influence.
  • To surface and articulate genuine insights into the lives of those we are looking to help.
  • To demonstrate empathy.
  • To demonstrate antipathy.
  • To assert control in a conversation.
  • To cede control in a conversation.
  • When we don’t know but we need to know.
  • To help inform our decision-making.
  • To choose between options.
  • To challenge our assumptions.
  • To discover options, we never even knew were possible.
  • To confirm our biases and justify a decision.
  • To take a brief.
  • To start a conversation with a stranger.
  • To start a conversation with a friend.
  • To understand someone’s passions.
  • To avoid making mistakes.
  • To minimize trouble.
  • To avoid guessing or making assumptions, projecting what we imagine the answer might be.
  • To learn from history or experience.
  • To flush out useful information that you suspect someone else is holding onto.

Questions play a critical role in science. They determine what you are actually going after, and what the problem is you’re looking to solve. We are lucky if we ask a handful of really important questions in our lifetime.

Three questions should guide exploratory research:

  • Why am I exploring in this area?
  • What do I hope – expect – to find?
  • If I find something interesting and it doesn’t fit into a preconceived, well-established framework, how would I recognize it as interesting?

We should strive to preserve openness in our questioning above anything else, because, when you’re open and ask open questions, you’re alert to the unexpected, and the unexpected can be truly transformative.

What did the bloody Greeks ever do for Us?

Socrates shows how thinking you know something about a subject – even a little bit – can soon see you tied up in knots of contradiction. The Socratic method is known as the elenchus. A technique or argument for the purpose of disproof or refutation … examination, investigation (of persons and things); questioning; test, examination, scrutiny, trial (as a means of determining the true nature of things); proof.

Open-mindedness, parking prejudice, and steering clear of assumptions, don’t throw away previously acquired knowledge.

Clean language was developed by the psychotherapist David Grove and is to this day much favored in counseling, coaching, and leadership development.

Socrates “never assumed he knew what other people were thinking and he believed that asking questions of them was the best way to help them reach new understanding”.

Socrates selling is a discipline that uses active listening and effective questioning to discover customer needs so that the customer and the salesperson can work together to meet those needs. It has a lot in common with the “tell, explain, describe” approach favored by the British Police. It is an insight-driven process. It demands empathy.

The definition of a good sales meeting is one in which we don’t use the sales presentation and the laptop remains closed.

I think the metaphor of midwifery is a good one for a light-touch empathetic consultant of any kind, including those who work in sales. By asking the right, smart questions that enable customers to recognize clarify, and articulate their needs, successful salespeople do exactly that.

Terry Fadem says in this book The Art of Asking: “Questions, by their very nature, are an expression of ignorance, not stupidity. Asking expresses an interest in learning.

MBWA (managing by wandering around) management style pioneered in the 1970 by Hewlett-Packard.

Powerful and purposeful stories are rooted in genuine, data-driven insights. Stories balance the emotional with the rational.

Smart questions surface relevant data > Relevant data enable us to surface and articulate genuine insights > Genuine, data-driven insights are the foundation stones of stories that move others to think, feel, or behave differently, not just today but also forever.

Being uncompromising is not necessarily a strategy for winning friends and influencing people.

Why should we even bother with “why’”?

Educational systems around the world were developed to serve industrialism. Education was not developed to harness and explode the potential of human curiosity, a true superpower that unlocks creativity.

Sinek’s central message is that organizations that tell their stories in the order why-how-what are more successful than those that do it the traditional way round of what-how-why. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

A child asks about forty thousands questions between the ages of two and five. Most of this questions start with “why”. Before that they learn about the world with physical exploring of cause and effect. In this phase reactions of caregivers are important. Operant conditioning in action, associative learning where behaviors are encouraged (and discouraged) by rewards and punishment.

Simon Baron-Cohen proposes, in his book The Pattern Seekers, that human innovation and experimentation is driven by a specific kind of engine in the brain. It’s one that seeks out if-and-then patterns, the minimum definition of system. I call this engine in the brain they Systemizing Mechanism. The impact of the Systemizing Mechanism was fast-tracked by the parallel development of the Empathy Circuit that allowed us to think about the  thoughts and feelings of others … By enabling us to imagine other people’s mental states … we could anticipate what they would be likely to do next.

Cognitive empathy is defined as the ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of another person. Affective empathy is defined as the drive to respond to another’s thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.

Pupils asking questions in many pedagogical settings are actively discouraged. It can be seen as a sign of disruption or attention-seeking behavior.

The human brain is a remarkably creative organ, able to combine old and old to make something genuinely new.

We can create with a finite number of words, we can create an infinite number of sentences.

The author proposes a new curriculum:

  • Mother tongue language, literature, and grammar.
  • Second language to appreciate different cultures.
  • Applied mathematics.
  • Creative expression in any non-verbal format.
  • Coding.
  • Logic, reasoning, and rationality.
  • Sports and games.
  • Mediation, mindfulness, and timeout.
  • Critical faculty and judgment to develop ninja skills in asking smarter questions.

Root cause analysis uses simple (but smart) questions to help the questioner work out if the hypothesis or proposal being presented is promising and worth pursuing or ill-considered and destined for the scrap heap.

The trouble with why is that it doesn’t always yield open-ended answers. Why can bring a whole host of baggage, assumptions, and opinions from the questioner to the conversation, turning it from innocent, inquiry into full-blown interrogation?

Why? Use it as a guiding principle and start with it, for sure. Be careful with intonation and intention and make judicious use of it, avoiding both accusatory tone and language at all costs.

Curiosity did what, did you say?

There are three strategies you can adapt to ensure that the curiosity of infancy is sustained throughout your life. The first is to embrace curiosity as a way of life. The second is to use divergent thinking exercises to create options. And the third is precisely the opposite – to use convergent thinking exercises to make choices.

In his TEDGlobal talk from 2010, British author Matt Ridley argues that “the engine of human progress has been the meeting and mating of ideas to make new ideas”.

The STEP Prism of Insight is a simple and effective tool for surfacing insights:

  • Sweat – the research phase:
    • Analytics
    • Immersion
    • Experience
  • Timeout – the thinking phase:
    • Frustration
    • Distraction
    • Subconscious
  • Eureka – the ideation phase:
    • Light Bulb
    • Excitement
    • Conviction
  • Prove – the testing phase:
    • Verify
    • Validate
    • Test

There are three ways we can trigger and stimulate the brain’s reward pathways by making it more likely we’ll have the breakthrough insights we crave. Voracious curiosity, divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking exercise, count adjectives, verbs and nouns. Adjectives are emotions, verbs are actions and nouns are facts. Typically fully 70 % are nouns, 20 % are verbs and 10 % are adjectives.

One of the simplest, best, and oldest tests of elastic thinking – Mlodinow’s synonym for divergent thinking – is Guildford’s Alternate Uses. It measures fluency (how many uses identified), originality (how different the uses are from the usual function), flexibility (how many totally different the uses are from the usual function), elaboration (how detailed the uses are). In a minute, coming up with 15-20 different uses would demonstrate strong fluency.

Design thinking was developed by the brothers David and Tom Kelley and formalized in the Kelley’s innovation consultancy IDEO.

What makes a good questions?

The ability to ask smarter questions depends on both content and form, the what and the how, the message and the medium.

Characteristic not found in those asking smarter questions include prejudice, a fixed view of the world, and an inability to see a problem from multiple perspectives.

An advisor tells the client what to think and do. A mentor tells the client what he would do if he was his client’s age or position, with advice often based on what he did at the exact same, relevant stage of his career. A coach, meanwhile, has an altogether different starting point. A coach starts from one assumption and one assumption only, that the client knows what the answer is to the challenge that they’re facing. Unless someone being coached owns the answer, they won’t act upon it.

Listening demands not responding, embracing and enjoying silence, and allowing them to fill the silence with their own thoughts or observations.

So much of personality is dependent on context.

Resolving disputes takes time and patience. Don’t close down questioning too soon.

Best questions are complex, clusters of questions, questions that answer them-selves, or questions so closed that they only have one possible answer. Leading questions are also a no-go area.

Certain questions can only be asked of certain people at a certain time, and it takes experience to know what you can ask of whom and when. You have to earn the right to ask questions, not impose them.

Ten ways to ask good (and better) questions:

  • Be open not closed – with reason.
  • Encourage those you’re questioning to open up and tell a story.
  • Learn to love the sound of silence.
  • Listen – really listen in order to hear.
  • Be oblique.
  • Keep it simple. (Keep your questions short. Don’t ask several questions in one. avoid the passive voice. Steer clear of (complex) metaphors to make your language as clean as possible. Favor concrete expression over abstract.)
  • Be curious. Always.
  • Park your assumptions at the door.
  • RTQ. RTFQ. RTFQA. (Read The Question! Read The Flipping Question! Read The Flipping Questions Again!)
  • Challenge the status quo.

What makes a bad question?

Ten ways to ask bad (and dumber) questions:

  • Close down the options of your subject at every turn.
  • Lead the witness with directions and assumptions.
  • Be insensitive to the impact that your questions can have.
  • Keep your mouth open and your ears closed.
  • Be as obscure and complex as you possibly can be.
  • Open your arms wide to cognitive biases.
  • Over-promote the role of experience and expertise.
  • Ask the same question again and again until you get the answer you want.
  • Don’t be afraid of losing your cool.
  • Be sure your questions get tactical as soon as possible.

Clients are less interested in your knowing everything about their sector. They want you to be expert in what you do, how you can help them. The sale is made in the questioning more than in the solution itself.

Does silence and listening matter?

Falling silent and remaining that way has two big benefits:

  • It allows the other person time to gather, consider, and express their thoughts and give your question the attention it should deserve.
  • It encourages them to exhibit the near-universal human distaste for silence and fill it with answers that may be more revealing than they imagine.

Silence is the perfect complement to asking smarter questions.

In the human brain, there are more than 60 different types of neurotransmitters.

Can we go over that in forensic detail?

The golden threads running through the questioning style and techniques used by those operating in life-and-death situate are calmness, empathy, and preparation.

Interviewing isn’t just asking a bunch of random questions to random people, it’s a guided conversation. The what matters, but the how really matters.

Two of the techniques author picked up from the U.S. sales training consultancy Sandler:

  • Upfront contract. Agree on call duration and review after the call if it makes sense to go forward. Deliver in the call what you promise.
  • Exhibit vulnerability. Show you weak sides and agree if it makes sense to go forward.

To get people talking, use the TED formula: Tell, Explain, Describe.

Plan, sequence your questions, and above all stay calm. Get the setting, your tone, and demeanor on point.

Do you like my bedside manner?

Bedside manner in medicine is defined as how a doctor deals with her patients.

For many healthcare professionals, the advent of Dr. Google is a mixed blessing.

Different types of profession use the same type of questioning style to achieve similar or different goals.

Sometimes big questions are hard to answer. To make them easier, you can start by asking little detailed questions (meta questions – questions about questions), so that it is easier for the other person to answer them.

Just one more thing. The Columbo Question asks: “Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you that I should have asked you?”

Great insights – profound and useful understanding of a person, an issue, a topic, or a thing – can appear when those we’re quizzing think that our interaction is over.

Just how sensitive should a question be?

In the case of asking smarter questions, both content and form – words and intentions – are equally important.

What are the best questions in the world?

A “wicked problem” is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.

There are some pretty universal principles of asking smarter questions:

  • Curiosity – harnessing the human instinct to understand why.
  • Open-mindedness – no prejudices or assumptions.
  • Preparation – of questions and environment.
  • Openness – in our questions, not closing options, encouraging storytelling.
  • Simplicity – in intent and language, no “side”.
  • Listening – taking the time and leaving the space for others to answer.

Perhaps the best business questions of all time was developed by Frederick F. Reichheld, a fellow of Bain & Company. They developed the Net Promoter Score. On a scale of 0-10, how likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?

Stephen King, a planning guide, a framework that asks five simple questions.

  • Where are we?
  • Why are we here?
  • Where could we be?
  • How could we get there?
  • Are we getting there?

On top of that, you can ask:

  • What’s standing in our way?
  • What’s changed recently that means we need to take action?

Some other great questions:

  • How do you spend your time?
  • What lights you up?
  • What would Jesus/Kanye/Klopp/Beyonce/Oprah/Yoda do?
  • How are you? How are you really?
  • What’s it like being you?
  • Who am I talking to?
  • What can I control?
  • What three things am I grateful for today/this week?
  • Is this statement true and how might we corroborate it?
  • Why?
  • What can you share with me that would help me see what you see?
  • How might we?
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Bill Schmarzo: The Economics of Data, Analytics and Digital transformation
Thomas H. Davenport, Jeanne G. Harris: Competing on Analytics; The New Science of Winning
Francis Buttle: Customer relationship management; Concepts and technologies – second edition

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