“If you were holding a Bible and a phone and they were both falling, which one would you hold on to?’ Asked the teacher. “The phone” answered the young girl. “If you were holding a Bible and a phone and they were both falling, which one would you hold on to!” Shouted the teacher in agitation. “The phone!” insisted the girl. Noting the teacher’s agitation, she went ahead to explain. “Sir the Bible app is in my father’s phone and my father’s phone screen is very expensive.” The teacher went mute in amazement. This may sound like blasphemy in a different generation but it’s a current reality. Looking at the scenario though, the teacher failed to clarify his question. He asked the question from his perspective and failed to account the learner’s perspective. This is the cost of not asking the right questions.
This example came to mind recently. I was opening a training a session. “Welcome to office administration training, kindly introduce yourself” I said to the participant who logged in last. “I am Rose and I am in the transport sector.” That got me confused, I knew the participant worked with an NGO though I was not sure of her role in the organization. She must have noted the questions in our mind, so she continued. “Am a driver.” That even got the participants more confused. Most of them were executive assistants and office administrators. She went ahead to explain further, “our executive assistant attended this training last year. I admire how calm she is. I want to learn how to remain that calm even when under pressure. I also want to diversify my knowledge. Most people are working from home and holding virtual meetings I hence do not have as many rides and I need to remain relevant to the organization.” That made some sense. I however felt she needed to fit in the class and appreciate the content from her current role.
“Let us walk through what you do on a daily basis” I implored. “I check the Managing director’s diary the previous day. I confirm all his appointments with the executive assistant. In the morning I make sure the car is cleaned and I have a daily newspaper and current business magazine in the car. I also check if any other senior staff have meetings that will require my driving services. I add the same to my calendar and schedule a reminder in their calendar. Sometimes I pick guests from the airport. I have to welcome them and confirm their hotel reservations. I also have to check their meetings and ensure I pick or drop them on time. I confirm their return flights as well and plan to have them at the airport on time. Next week I am taking a team of senior executives to the Somali border for stakeholder meetings and project supervision. I will check the hotel rooms in advance. I also have to make sure the meeting rooms are well arranged and meeting resources availed. I will order food and other snacks for the staff and guests during the meetings. I also assist in engaging the local people to ensure their expectation are met. I will compile a report after engaging them and share with the project managers.”
“Let us summarize her roles in relation to our roles in office administration and executive assistants” I said. The team proceeded, “diary management, meetings management, events management, customer service, travel arrangement…” The list kept growing. I could see the amazement on her face. All along she thought she was just a driver. “What skills do you think she needs or she is already applying that also match your roles?” I asked. “Communication, emotional intelligence, adaptability, political skills, time management, planning, business and social etiquette.” The team concluded. This conversation changed her perspective. It also changed the other participants view of her. She realized she was in the right training room and had much more to learn and contribute in that training. This is probably better explained by her feedback, “l was able to relate with the content very well and clearly understand. The trainer was able to connect the training with what l do bearing in mind l am not an office person.” This confirmed the power of asking clarifying questions.
A while ago I logged into a speaking question. The speaker asked “What do you do first when you wake up in the morning?” You can guess that those who were genuine enough said they check their phone. Those who wanted to sound politically correct looked for something socially acceptable like the Bible. The general message was that those who spend time on the phone or TV are wasting time. I however differed with that perspective. A better perspective would have been to check what people do currently with those two gadgets. Like the girl in our first story most people have their Bible apps on the phone. Actually my books reading app is on my phone and that is the first thing I open when I wake up. It is then followed up by the Television screen; that is where my daily exercise videos are. The thought that the two are time wasters is due to the failure of asking clarifying questions. I have actually found it easier to listen to audio books from a TV screen.
If we take every statement on face value without clarifying, we miss out on important things. If we do not have the courage to challenge perspectives, we become prisoners of our old thoughts or other people’s perspectives. We need to have the courage to ask deep and clarifying questions. Good questions enable us to;
- Solve problems creatively – questions allow you to get to the core of the problem. Keep asking ‘why’ until you get to the core of the problem.
- Shift your perspective – Questions trigger your imagination and creative thinking. They encourage you to explore new insights.
- Direct your thought process – the questions in my training class were meant to direct the participants thought process to the training content. Open ended questions grow possibilities and elicit new idea that guide and direct thinking.
- Reflect – questions are a good tool for self-reflection. Asking yourself the right questions can help you to examine your life and get in touch with your inner self.
- Learn – One of the greatest technique in coaching is questioning. Questions stimulate thinking, when one thinks for themselves they get vast knowledge compared to having knowledge dumped on them.
- Be empathetic – Good questions enliven conversations; people feel included and listened to leading to meaningful and productive conversations.
Question everything. Become comfortable with unanswered questions. Don’t see them as problems, or as a necessary evil in your way to answers. Welcome them. Play with them. Your brain will thank you.