04 July 2016 14:42:35 IST

The Art of Questioning

Questioning helps one voice doubts, seek clarifications, evaluate the facts and take the right decisions

Albert Einstein, the genius who believed curiosity educates more than formal learning, stressed the importance of questioning. He firmly believed questioning and curiosity were the key to learning. He said: “It’s not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”

A software company I know had one of its American technology consultants visiting. He addressed the group of software developers who were poised to start on a project. At the end of the meeting, the consultant made a comment to the CEO. He said the group of developers came across as an unintelligent lot. “Are you sure they can do the project?” he wondered. The fact of the matter was that the developers did not ask a single question during the meeting or even after it. If they had no curiosity about the project how were they going to work on it?

Posing questions

Questioning helps raise doubts and seek clarifications, which in turn, help in evaluating the information and facts presented. In the process of questioning, as a student, one might realise that many questions have no clear or definite answers. The endeavour is for certainty; however, very often, the best one can do is reach a reasonable level of probability. But by constantly seeking answers it is possible to make the right decisions and one of the major goals of learning is to build the ability to make reasoned decisions in life and work.

It was Neil Postman, American author and educator, who said: “Everything we know has its origin in questions. Questions, we might say, are the principal intellectual instruments available to human beings.”

Along with listening and creativity, questioning is a critical skill required not only for learning but also for a progressive career. Not accepting what is said at face value but posing questions to confirm the facts and establish credibility comprises the crux of any learning process. The other side of the questioning coin of is listening. In this age of quick-fix responses, there is a clamour for speed and, most often, though pertinent questions are posed, rarely are the responses paid heed to.

One of my acquaintances says he often tests how earnest people are in asking questions. To the standard courtesy question of ‘how are you’, he once replied that he was not good. But the response to his answer was: “Excellent! What else is happening?” It is advisable to refrain from engaging someone through questioning if there is no time or inclination to listen to the responses.

The Right Balance

At any level, personal, educational or professional, questioning should help in gleaning information and clarity to internalise and enhance knowledge and skills. Having said that, everything in the extreme is unhealthy.

Posing too many questions for the sake of asking leads to chaos and cluttering of the mind, and the charm of interaction is lost under a barrage of questions. Whenever I attend a meeting with a client I assess the possibility of doing business soon after the meeting. If there are hardly any questions asked, I immediately know there is no scope for business and the meeting happened because, for some reason, it was on the Google calendar.

If there are too many questions, the association will unlikely go further as there was no purpose or focus in the interaction, only questions. What gives out a positive signal is when there is questioning, listening and responding, in turns, throughout a meeting. This signifies an active and positive business interaction with a clear purpose to ascertain commitment and capabilities. Well-informed decisions result from such interactions.

When we interview candidates during recruitment, we feel the onus is on us to get the best out of them. A sure way of eliciting quality responses is to pose quality questions. Most of the interviewers offer the job-seeking candidate an opportunity to ask questions at the end of the interview processes. The quality of questions the candidate asks often makes a difference between being hired or rejected.

As a first step toward pursuing a business management degree, prepare to get the best out of your school and your professors. As they say, what you bring to the table is what you will gain. Display a curious, even inquisitive, approach to learning and do not hesitate to ask. I recall the Chinese proverb: He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.

Again, do not dwell on questioning to the extent of turning cynical. Popular Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan in his address at Yale advised: Never become cynical about yourself and your life. Becoming cynical about your life is the single most destructive thing you can do to it.

Looking Forward

Teaching in business schools is focused and precise. At times, the language and the subject could be a trifle too esoteric. However, while at b-school, the springboard to a high-profile corporate career, one needs to grasp every bit of learning and piece of knowledge offered. Posing appropriate questions can help break the learning process into parts and make comprehension much simpler.

The uniqueness of a good business school is that complex business issues in a real-world scenario are an integral part of the curriculum. Active participation and experiential learning will ensure adequate preparation to manage and succeed in a corporate career.

Mohammed Ali, the boxing legend who left us recently, said that it isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe. Seek to remove the pebble by asking the right questions at the right time and ensure your path to knowledge is smooth.