Our educational system teaches us to think, analyze, write, compute, and create. Drawing on the Socratic method our classroom discussions are centered around a model where the expert, or the teacher, is the one with the responsibility for asking questions to stimulate thinking, dialogue, and debate.
But what about the student? How do our schools teach the skill and practice of formulating better questions?
Think about it, the questions you ask in any given situation might manipulate, direct, offend, empower, inform, assume, or even influence creative input.
Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers. – Tony Robbins
Asking questions is a required skill of daily living whether it is to understand a diagnosis or treatment from a doctor’s office, to gain clarity around the scope of a project at work, or to generate new ideas when you are at an impasse.
Good questions not only help you learn, but they can also provide the necessary stimulus to think in new ways, challenge the status quo, and improve your quality of life.
One Word Can Make All The Difference
Using the right word in a question can be a powerful tool in eliciting better responses. In a study conducted by sociologist John Heritage and his colleagues, family physicians asked their patients one of the two questions noted below to determine which question would uncover additional unmet concerns their patients had during their office visit. Question B outperformed question A by 78%.
- Is there anything else you would like to discuss?
- Is there something else you would like to discuss?
When you use the word some, it implies an amount. When any is used, it often infers ‘lack’ as in; “I don’t have any money.”
When formulating your questions, it’s important to consider the purpose or outcome of your questioning. Consider these two questions below:
- What should you do?
- What could you do?
When you use the word should, you are more likely to elicit responses that fall within some sort of moral norms or social expectations. When could is used, you are much more likely to get suggestions that are creative and reflect a broader range of possibilities.
A Model for Question Formation
How do you improve your skill in asking better questions?
In the 1990’s Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana were working with low-income families, as part of a dropout prevention program in Lawrence Massachusetts, to find out why the parents were not participating in their children’s education. Rothstein and Santana discovered the parents were uncertain as to what types of questions they should be asking and therefore felt ill-equipped to attend various school meetings.
Eager to support these parents with useful resources, Rothstein and Santana provided families with a list of all types of questions they could ask local school teachers and administrators. By supplying families with a question cheat sheet, Rothstein and Santana realized that they were perpetuating a model of dependency. Eager to encourage independence and self-advocacy, they learned that a better approach would be to teach parents the skill of formulating good questions. When individuals can take ownership of their own learning and awareness, they become more engaged in their life.
After several years of modification and simplification, Rothstein and Santana created a seven-step model for formulating better questions which is now taught through their organization, The Right Question Institute (RQI).
For those of you in education, counseling, mediation, sales, investigative research, and journalism you may be quick to dismiss this model. After all, you have developed and honed some level of expertise in asking questions. You are probably familiar with open questions (designed to elicit comprehensive answers which usually begin with how, what, or why ) and closed questions (which typically encourage short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses). However, I would challenge you and others to go through the entire seven step-model noted below and expand your expertise.
A former career counselor with a Master’s degree in Human Resource Counseling, I would label myself as someone fairly skilled at asking good questions. I found the Question Formulation Technique ( QFT) powerful and insightful.
For instance, it was useful to go through the process of changing a closed question to an open question and vice versa as outlined in step #4. The practice of flipping a closed question to open question challenged my capacity to think differently about question formulation.
Furthermore, it is often easy to produce a list of questions but forget that not all questions have equal value. Some types of questions can lead you down a rabbit hole of no return. Consequently knowing your most important questions will help guide you to uncover and discover that which is most important to you as outlined in step #5.
Asking better questions will lead you to make informed choices and better decisions. It will empower you to become engaged in the process of learning and discovery which will lead to better outcomes in your life.
Experiencing-the-QFT ( Expanded version )
1. A Question Focus (QFocus)
A stimulus; a springboard you will use to ask questions; it can be a topic, image, phrase or situation—but it CANNOT be a question.
2. Four Rules for Producing Questions
- Ask as many questions as you can
- Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any questions
- Write down every question exactly as it is stated
- Change any statement into a question
3. Producing Questions
Formulate as many questions in the allotted time, remembering to follow the rules!
4. Categorizing Questions
Identify open/closed questions; change one closed into an open & vice versa.
5. Prioritizing Questions
Prioritize your top 3 questions; if working with others, reach a consensus, not a majority.
6. Next Steps
How will these questions be used?
What have you learned and how can you use what you learned?
Asking questions is the single most powerful renewable source of intellectual energy. – Dan Rothstein Click to Retweet
Dan Rothstein’s TEDtalk
A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger
b. Related Blog Post on Positive Psychology and Strength-Based Questions.
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