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The Joy of the Question

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Malone
March 3, 2020

I am a sailor. Well, at least I want to be thought of as one. My beloved and I live on an exquisite sailing vessel we named Madness as a nod to the crazy world we live in and the twists and turns of life’s journey. Recently, while reading a splendid book, The Philosophy of Sailing by Christian Williams, I came across a quote that reminded me of one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal of leadership: the question.

We don’t often ask good questions. They require a certain amount of vulnerability—something we don’t often want to exude in a professional setting. We admittedly wear a number of masks in our daily work: the analyst, the project manager, the staffer, the division chief. And we think we need to have the answer, set strategic direction, make decisions and do so with dwindling resources. When we fall prey to an unrealistic expectation of what these roles mean, we lose our ability to ask penetrating questions. We hesitate to stray outside the bounds of our titles, and in the worst-case scenario, we pretend to understand things we don’t so that those for whom we are responsible will still think we know our stuff.

Mastering the art of effective questions also demands something few of us possess—the ability to listen intently and emphatically. Look at the data. The percentage of Americans with poor listening skills ranges from 60-90% depending on who will actually admit it. Those who listen poorly share many of the same bad habits. They interrupt. They formulate responses in their mind even as the person in front of them is in the midst of explaining their position. In other words, they listen for the purpose of responding, not connecting. They also tend to listen through their own lenses instead of trying to step out of those confines into a more inclusive and accepting mindset. Yes, we confine ourselves, and our organizations, by our failure to ask good questions.

It all begins with not knowing, or at least admitting we may not know, and for that we turn to Keats.

John Keats was a fascinating guy. He was an English romantic poet who died short of his 25th birthday due to complications arising from tuberculosis. His writing was mysterious, fluid and categorically amorous. In his efforts to understand life, he suggested a certain joy in not knowing. “At once, it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean, Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The masculine gender focus aside, Keats was onto something here. He hoped to entice all of us to feel a certain comfort level with not knowing, being unsure, and not launching into ill-advised decisions because of some false sense of urgency.  The best decisions come when we take the time to discern, to pause and to reflect. And to question.

Author Edgar Schein suggests we seek answers to questions in order to build a relationships based on genuine and humble curiosity. This opens the mind to self-examination as well, which is the root of all leadership growth. And there’s more to this. Questioning helps us develop cognitive empathy whereby we establish a connection with those whom we converse with. It’s an authentic and meaningful bond that allows us to explore, together. And it sends a powerful message to the person we are questioning that we actually care.

Questioning can also provide something seriously needed in our workplace. Time. When we ask questions, we build gaps of time into conversations that allow for more thought. Sometimes these gaps of time allow emotions to cool, or feelings to evolve. Time also keeps us from responding too quickly, rushing blindly into poor decisions. This has the potential to lead to organizational disaster.

Combine all of this together and we have an opportunity to exhibit a mindful curiosity, a little humility, and a mindset of cultivating meaningful relationships. Plus—we get to learn a little bit. Hence, the real value of the question.

Oh yeah, the quote I referred to above? “Answers stop everything. Questions keep us going.”

Thank you Christian.


Author: Patrick Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs in the School of Public Affairs at American University. He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in local, state, and federal agencies, professional associations, and universities. Dr Malone is a retired Navy Captain. His TEDx Talk, “Thinking about Time,” is available at http://tedxtalks.ted.com.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone

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