Softening the Necessity of Asking Questions

Probing questions are generally threatening to the person receiving the request. How must those receiving the queries of Socrates have felt?  What is the immediate response to someone’s asking you “why” or “what evidence sustains that claim you just made?” or “What are the arguments of those with whom you disagree about that belief of yours?”

We say that questions are the behavior of the seeker, the person wishing to understand and reflect at a more substantial level. And how could we be anything but impressed by the inquisitiveness of such a person? If we were not so egocentric and insecure, we could celebrate being the recipient of deep questions, seeing the requests as the act of a wise friend whom we are lucky to have encountered. To answer questions strengthens our own reflection because we have to organize and articulate an answer that we otherwise might never have attempted.

However, what each of us recognizes is that the questions also have the potential to expose our mental sloppiness, an attribute    we had worked so assiduously to shield from others. From this perspective being asked questions is distressing.

This post could now head in the direction of cognitive exercises each of us could practice to tap into our better selves—that part that treasures being asked questions because we know full well that unless the questioner is playing some kind of domination game by all his asking, we should welcome substantive questions whenever we are lucky enough to be in the presence of someone who will examine our thinking by investigating it with us.

Instead, I want to take note of the desirability of being a humble questioner. Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry:The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling focuses on the role of gentle questioning in the effective leadership of organizations.  But his strategies and logic can also guide those of us who ask a lot of questions in creating the impression that we are asking to know, not to expose.

I could never tell whether Socrates was genuinely humble or was enjoying just a little too much the discomfort of those his questions discombobulated. And we all should work to make sure that no recipient of our questions ever has that same doubt.

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