A More Beautiful Question

I love questions, especially if I’m asking them. It’s why I initially picked up a copy of the book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger. I liked the title of this book, with its promise that I could ask better questions—questions that would get to the heart of the situation more elegantly and garner answers that would help me craft better solutions. I was delighted to learn that the title of the book came from a poem by e e cummings:

Always the beautiful answer
Who asks a more beautiful question

Berger encourages readers to question more, and then act more. He breaks down the questioning process into three categories:

  • Why?
  • What if?
  • How?

Each type of question flows into the next, if we let it. Why is it that way? What if it were different? How could it be changed?

Children are constantly asking why—and, as adults, we don’t know or have forgotten the beauty of just wondering. We respond tersely, or maybe with an “I don’t know.”

Asking why more frequently—and seeing things differently—is the goal of this stage of questioning. As our brain develops, we categorize and filter ideas or experiences, and this stops us from seeing what is all around us. We no longer ask, “Why is the sky blue?” At some point, the answer became unimportant, and so we categorize it as “not a threat—ignore.” We’ve stopped noticing.

However, Berger says, we could potentially be more creative, better at reexamining our priorities and superior at problem-solving, if only we were to spend less time on autopilot and more time questioning.

It’s also important to ask better questions. Often, he says, organizations fall into a pattern of asking unproductive questions, which can dominate the culture. Is your organization asking “Who is to blame?” Or, is it asking “Could this be an opportunity for us?”

Berger asserts:

The nonprofit sector is inclined to keep doing what it has done—hence, well-meaning people are often trying to solve a problem by answering the wrong question. (p. 2)

Berger encourages us all to ask better questions, starting in the classroom. He cites the Right Question Institute and presents their method for developing the skill to question. This includes questioning without judgement, improving questions by broadening or narrowing the focus, and then prioritizing the developed questions. An initial step to successful questioning is becoming comfortable with not knowing.

Look at the questions you generate, examine them for their underlying assumptions, and ask if there is a different question you should be asking. And perhaps the biggest thing to ask yourself is “What if I am wrong?”

What’s required is a willingness to go out into the world with a curious and open mind, to observe closely—perhaps most important, to listen. Listening informs questioning. (p 98)

He encourages us to fail quickly and often. If we fail in the same way each time, we are not learning. We tend to overthink and excessively prepare. We need to try quickly, get feedback, and see what works.

When conducting job interviews, he suggests searching for people with the skills to question. Ask the person being interviewed to bring a big question, maybe about the company or its offerings. During the interview, ask the person to expand or challenge the question (see page 174). In doing so, you will better understand the thought that went into the question and their ability to think on their feet.

In making big decisions, he recommends choosing the path that would make the best story. By evaluating our own lives, and by asking what is working, we find ways to retain or make more space for positive thoughts.

Self-questioning and focusing on what is wrong leads to dissatisfaction, regret and hopelessness. In finding what works for you, reflect on times when you’ve shined, when you’ve felt most alive. Ask significant people in your life when they have seen you most alive or engaged—identifying these times will help you capture it.

The last section of the book focuses on asking life questions. Ask yourself:

  • What is important to me?
  • What has worked for me before?
  • How can I bring more of that into my life now?
  • When, where and how do I shine and feel most alive?

He suggests what Fran Peavey calls Strategic Questioning, which is being open, curious, slightly provocative and never judgmental. Try to ask more dynamic questions, such as:

  • Why might they see the issue this way?
  • Why do I see it differently?
  • What are the assumptions we are each operating under?

Along with this is another reminder to question yourself. What are the odds I’m wrong?

Finally, he encourages us to develop the question that could occupy our thoughts, efforts and imagination—a question hard enough to be interesting, yet realistic enough to have some hope of answering. We find purpose, he says, when we engage in something bigger than ourselves.

If you’re open to asking bigger, better questions, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Berger’s book. I’m glad I did.