Have you ever caught yourself in the middle of a course and frustrated because you don’t understand what’s going on? Have you found yourself struggling to keep pace with the ever-changing dynamic at work? Do you want to clear up doubts of your own or misperceptions of others? If, like me, you’ve found yourself sitting there in one of these self-contemplative moments, I’d like to offer a little insight I’ve found that may help. Here are six and a half reasons why I’ve found that I need to ask more questions.
Because you don’t understand everything on a comprehensive scale.
I’m not God and I don’t have all the answers. Asking questions begins with this admission. Leaders who lead without asking questions tend to steer the corporation the wrong way. Pastors who pastor without asking questions tend to lose track of what is important in their congregations. Students who study without asking questions often find themselves leaving school without direction or purpose. So start asking yourself the meta-questions. What is the big picture? Why am I doing process? Why am I pursuing this degree? What is the goal of the Church? Where does my company need to be in 1, 2, or 5 years?
Be willing to think abstractly and interact with those who you feel may not fully understand the situation. Pastors can be compelled to get directional insight from their congregants because of the authority gap. In a similar sense, bosses avoid asking these questions sincerely of their employees and teachers don’t ask these questions of their students. In the reverse, many children fear asking meta-questions from their parents for similar reasons. Those who are under authority structures fail to ask meta-questions because they fear that their authorities will assume that they don’t know what they are doing or that they have lost their orientation to the purpose of the institution or company.
The reality is that none of us know the best way to answer the meta-questions. But we’ve been given those around us to help us answer those questions. Don’t shy away from asking the big questions regardless of whether you see that person as superior or inferior.
I remember seeing a statistic somewhere of how many churches don’t have a purpose statement of some kind. And I remember thinking to myself, “how in the world do churches plan to execute their mission if they don’t know what in the world the plan is?” Unfortunately this is often the case. When I managed a couple hundred employees and was attempting to maintain over a dozen client relationships, I found myself simply trying to put out fires. I lost my vision of the big picture because I stopped asking questions. When I stopped asking questions, I started running on assumptions. When those assumptions were wrong, I was wrong. Don’t be wrong on the big picture; ask more questions.
Because you don’t understand the minutia.
Now in a similar sense to the problem with not asking the meta-questions, I think I’ve often failed to question the minutia. Because I know the big picture of an event or circumstance, I often fail to probe the details. And when I start probing the details it is often quite fascinating how the big picture I thought I had begins to morph.
A student who fails to ask the detail-oriented questions will miss the critical test questions. An employee who doesn’t probe the minutia will inevitably make a minor mistake that cascades. A leader who doesn’t dive into detail often will address surface-level problems and fail to address the real issues. A counselor who avoids finding out those seemingly minor features in the conversation will end up steering the counselee down the wrong direction.
Become a journalist with your questions. Begin by examining the 5 W’s and 1 H of your workplace problems, school assignments, relational difficulties, ministry needs, and so on. When you’ve taken an event or thing and asked all the questions you can, you’ll find your contributions more helpful, your work more accurate, and your study more scholarly.
The other day, I was being told about the value of encryption on computer files. Now, I feel that I’m relatively tech-savvy, so the question that I asked probably made my friend question whether I was an idiot. I had to be okay with that (and the fact that my readers may feel the same about me right now). But I honestly didn’t truly understand how the process worked. My friend began to explain that the process was dependant on two keys. I stopped him. “What is a key, and why do I need it?” I asked. He then explained about the need for keys and cipher texts, public and private keys, and so on. I kept asking questions until I truly felt that I understood the minutia to a greater degree after the conversation than I did before. Don’t walk away from a conversation feeling like you wished that you knew more and avoid the pitfalls of the unknown unknowns; ask the detailed questions!
Because you need to stay a step ahead.
Change is one of the few constants in life. Parents, your kids are growing up in a different world than you did – drastically. If you want to keep pace with your child and understand the pressures that they’re facing, you’re going to need to stop and ask them some questions. Corporate leaders, whether you believe it or not, your industry is undergoing change. If you’re not actively asking questions about the direction of your industry and trying to stay ahead of the demand and technology, you’re going to fall behind. Educators, there was a time where your industry seemed basically static. But growing costs and the influx of online education has changed the playing field. There used to be a time that providing a mediocre education in order for kids to walk away with degrees and job placements was just fine. But the reality is that those jobs don’t exist anymore. And the tuition at your school is probably prohibitive for the students that you had 10 years ago. So what’s your competitive advantage? What does the education in your class or program or school offer that other schools simply can’t offer? Start asking questions. Ask students. Ask peers. Find out how you can improve what you offer to strengthen the value of the education that you provide.
The story of Apple is insightful. 10 years ago, Apple set themselves apart from the rest of the industry by asking questions. Unlike their rival at the time, they began asking what consumers really wanted. And the answers they got began shaping better and better products. The entire landscape of the tech industry was reshaped by the innovations of Apple that were designed around a simple interface for their consumers. But in recent years, analysts have begun to suspect that Apple has stopped asking these questions. Their competitors are answering consumer demand for greater customization, larger devices, cheaper items, brand new devices such as wearables, and newer technology. Over the past few years, Apple’s product has merely been brought up close to or just at the standard of the rest of the industry. Perhaps one of the overarching problems in where Apple is at today versus 10 years ago stems from their failure to really ask where the consumer demand is headed. Don’t lag your competition and don’t be forced into the mold of always struggling to keep up. Ask questions in order to stay ahead!
Because you don’t want to waste time or resources.
I’ve become a big advocate of asking questions over the past 10 years or so. But one of the biggest push-backs I often get is that asking questions takes too much time. Isn’t it just quicker to call someone out on a failure and move on? As a parent, won’t it take longer to ask your child why they climbed into the neighbor’s yard than it would to simply reprimand them for doing so? Won’t it take longer to ask that friend why they’re down in the dumps rather than just offering an encouraging word? Won’t it take up much-needed company time to ask an employee why they made a particular error, rather than just writing them up for it?
I would argue that failing to ask questions actually takes more time in the long-run. Not asking the child why he climbed the fence can fail to account for the possibility that you never articulated the rule to begin with. Not asking questions about a friend or co-worker’s disposition can lead to more detailed interventions down the road. Not asking why an employee made a mistake leads to angst on the part of the employee and a greater probability of the same mistake happening again.
I’ll never forget the time that I was buying an investment property. A friend turned me onto a great deal and I had to act within a limited window. I asked some questions, but I never slowed down to ask very many questions. Questions take time…time I didn’t have to cut the deal. So when I closed on the house and I called the contractor that my friend had a signed quote from indicating that they could do the repairs at a particular cost, and the contractor said that the quote wasn’t accurate, I began to ask the questions that I “didn’t have time to ask before.” When I found that the comps that were pulled for the house were not actually valid, I began to ask even more questions. And, of course, when I found out that my friend was actually profiting tens of thousands from my purchase, I began to arrive at the answers to those unasked questions. By God’s grace, I walked away without a huge loss, but I’ll never forget the value of asking those questions that I “don’t have time to ask.”
Because it helps you treat others the way you should.
I remember the day like it was yesterday. I tried really hard as a kid to play by the rules, and there was nothing quite as devastating as being called out for breaking them. So I had just started at a new school and I think I was about 5 years old. We were at recess and my new friend Ben and I were kicking a ball. One of Ben’s kicks sent the ball up against a small fence and I went to retrieve it. Ben followed me and told me that he had lost another ball over the fence one time. He pointed to it and dared me to get it. So I hopped the short fence and went to grab it. I was on my way out when the teacher blew a whistle and came running at me. “You aren’t supposed to be back there! You’re in BIG trouble!” I honestly didn’t know there was a rule about the fence.
But, of course, the teacher wrote me up. My teacher placed little slips of paper in our lunchboxes at naptime. These indicated how good we had been: green for good, yellow for some problems, red for a lot of problems, and black for HUGE problems. Of course, I got the black slip. When I saw it in my lunch box, my stomach sank. “Didn’t she know that I was new? Why didn’t she just ask?” Now my mom was about to find out, and I’d definitely be punished for disobeying my teacher. What should I do? In the dark room in the midst of nap time, I quickly pulled the black slip from my lunch box and slid it down the air vent, never to be seen again.
You’ve probably been on the receiving end of unquestioned injustice a time or two too. Don’t make the same mistake. Ask questions.
Because you have doubts.
Time and again I’ve talked with people who’ve snapped. They’ve walked out on their marriages or their jobs. They’ve turned their back on their education path or their faith. And as we discuss where this decision came from, quite often we get to the core of the issue. They had doubts about their partner, their job security, their relationship, or their religion. They felt like asking the questions that needed asking would prove a lack of faith on their part, so they just covered up the problem and moved on. Moving on felt like the right call. But really, they should have asked the hard questions.
Asking the hard questions early on can quickly demonstrate that you are right and need to take a different course or that you are wrong and need to rethink your position. Do you think that this career isn’t right for you? Be honest with your boss. Think through a list of questions and start posing them. Try to work through your doubts and you’ll be better off for it. Have you been questioning the tenets of your belief system that you’ve held since you were a child? Sit down with your pastor and begin asking the hard questions. Obviously, don’t be a jerk about it, but really try to understand how someone who spends their whole life pursuing that belief, career, or educational path has done so. Maybe you’ll walk away agreeing. Maybe you’ll walk away disagreeing. But I know you’ll walk away better informed on your decision.
I remember the first time I doubted the existence of God. I don’t think my reason is one that most atheists have thought of, and the reason doesn’t really matter. The fact is, I had doubts. But, growing up in a legalistic background where performance and façade was what it was all about, I couldn’t admit my questions. So I buried them deep inside and pretended like I had all the answers. But those doubts only cropped up later in life – stronger and more difficult. And it was only as I began asking questions to God, from the Bible, and from the Church that I began finding the answers I desperately needed. Honestly, some of my most difficult periods in life would have been avoided had I simply been willing to expose my doubt, and ask the tough questions.
Because you have all the answers.
You know how we started with the admission that we’re not divine and that we don’t have all the answers, right? Well, I thought I’d mention that Jesus liked to ask questions. So what does that mean? Perhaps Jesus recognized the value of the Socratic question to help his listeners understand truth. Jesus didn’t need to know whose image was on the denarius. He needed the people to understand the implication of image-bearing, and so he asked them a leading question.
If you think you’ve the big picture down and you’ve probed the minutia, if you’re a step ahead of all of us and you have taken the requisite time to come to your position, if you treat others right in every decision and have no doubts about your current course, then you genuinely have a lot to offer the rest of us. But unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that you can be done asking questions. The best way you’ll be able to get us to your position is to start asking us the questions we need to answer in order to get there too!