The 3 Reasons Why People Aren't Asking Questions
Updated: Feb 17, 2020
“…and that’s all there is to it. It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Do you have any questions?” She said.
This statement occurred at the end of my first meeting where a new leadership role was being transitioned my way. I had just listened to my predecessor speak about their job and responsibilities for over an hour, about all the ins and outs, the how tos, the specific processes and how things should be done. She was very matter of fact, “It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it.” I remember feeling completely and utterly overwhelmed at the end of that hour and a half…I was experiencing the consciously incompetent phase of learning, the “I know what I don’t know” but even more than that, it was the “I don’t know what I don’t know, but I know I need to know more.”
You would think her last statement would have landed like a breath of fresh air. “Do you have any questions?” My brain should have been thinking, why yes, I have so many, where do I start? Instead her question landed like a brick and a loud thump of silence followed her question. I just stared at her, overwhelmed, oscillating between demonstrating shear panic and what was a more socially appropriate way to demonstrate that I was way out of my league. I should have a million questions, but there I sat across from the table from her just smiling and nodding. She waited expectantly, at the ready to answer whatever question I had, but I couldn’t even muster up one.
Why did I freeze? What about her last question actually tied me up in knots to the point of no words? I believe there were three things that caused me to freeze up:
the social pressure of being seen as incompetent
the learned trait of doing what I’m told
the unlearned trait of asking good questions
You see, I’m embarrassed to admit that in that 3.5 second moment of silence I prioritized what I thought I wanted my reputation and social appearance to be over what it should be. I didn’t want to be seen as incompetent…which I totally was. I didn’t want to be seen as overwhelmed…which I totally was. I had listened intently to all she had said, taken notes, and I knew how to do what I was told…why ask any questions? And at the end of the day, I didn’t know how to ask the questions I truly needed to because I never really practiced a deep curiosity.
Do you ever wonder if that is what people sitting across us in meetings or in the desks of the classroom are thinking? After a riveting hour and a half lecture or 45 minute presentation at work does your final question, “Do you have any questions?” somehow suck all the air out of the room so no one can talk? As a new professor, I use to think that silence on the other end must be a sign that I did a decent enough job to explain the material, it was a sign of good teaching. But, as I have gained experience and began to understand more about curiosity, critical thinking, and problem solving, I’ve realized the lack of questions signals a problem. I think just like in my above scenario, it could signal three different areas of problems:
students/coworkers worry about their social image
students/coworkers approach learning only as a passive participant, not as an active learning experience
students/coworkers haven’t yet learned how to ask productive questions.
I am going to spend the next few weeks tackling these three areas and providing you with some interventions that can help your students and/or coworkers begin to think differently when approached with the question, “Do you have any questions?”
Let’s begin with the end. How do we get students to ask productive questions?
1. Provide a rationale.
One barrier of asking a productive question is the receiver of the message does not understand why questions are critical to learning. The learning process is way more than just sitting and consuming the material given. The material has to be broken down, thought about critically, applied to many scenarios and synthesized in a way that becomes second nature. Questions are the gatekeeper of moving information from static to dynamic and application to synthesizing. Students and/or those you may be leading need to understand how you view questions and the rationale behind the importance of them asking questions throughout their time with you. One rationale can be, “Questions are a way to understand other perspectives and to engage in collaboration.” Or another may be, “Questioning is like the scoop of an excavator, it removes the top layer of soil to reveal information underneath. Each question, is just another scoop of dirt removed until you get to the bottom.” (If any of you reading have a three-year-old that is obsessed with construction vehicles like mine…this analogy may have a lot of meaning J).
Like anything we can think of…asking questions is a learned trait. It can be taught, and it can be learned. It takes practice. As instructors we need to provide opportunities for students to practice asking questions and receiving feedback. As leaders we need to provide opportunities for those we lead to practice asking questions and receiving feedback. The key here is the stakes of the environment…this practice environment needs to be LOW stakes. As we will discuss in the coming weeks, breaking down the social barriers of how we perceive what others think of us when we ask questions provides a huge impact on how we go about providing practice. Asking students or coworkers to practice asking questions in a public forum may not be the best option. One low stakes option would be to assign students to write 3 questions about the assigned reading, then provide feedback to the students about their question. Feedback could include things like, this question didn’t dig deep enough or this is still asking surface level information. The goal would be to provide feedback that helps your students learn how to ask questions that go deeper. After feedback is provided, you can randomly draw the questions out of a hat in class and answer them for all to hear. This provides feedback to the whole class on what types of questions have been asked and provides them with even more examples to draw from and practice from.
3. Asking the right question.
Interesting that asking the right question can be a solution to teaching others how to ask productive questions. The words we choose matter. The way we frame our questions can allow for a flood or create a dam to many productive questions. Simply by reframing this question, “Do you have any questions?” to “What kinds of questions do you have?” you will create what psychologists refer to as a Jedi Mind Trick. It says, “You all have questions and because we are all different, we all have different kinds of questions. There is no need to worry or be embarrassed because I’m admitting for everyone right now that we all have questions. So, offer them up people, ask away.” Hence the Jedi Mind Trick…seven words actually become a whole lot more when heard and create a safe environment for us to move forward, enter into what is being asked. We can do a lot to help our students with asking productive questions by providing the right environment (more to come on this on future posts in this series) and by choosing the right words.
To be genuinely curious is new for me. I am a rule follower to boot, so much so I won’t enter the exit doors at Walmart (and it drives me nuts when other people do) and I won’t drive across parking spots in a completely empty parking lot when no one is around because there are arrows painted on the asphalt that tell you how to navigate the parking lot. Questioning things kind of fell into a rule for me…don’t do it. I’m not sure where I developed this very unwritten rule, but I do know it has followed me for many years. Maybe many of your coworkers or students have the same unwritten rule. Let’s take some time to write a new rule into their psyche.
“Give people facts and you feed their minds for an hour. Awaken curiosity and they feed their own minds for a lifetime.” -Ian Russell