Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Do You Question

I had a very interesting conversation with a woman over the weekend about questioning. She told me a story...

"One of the main things I learned in college was not to simply accept other people's statements. Instead, I learned to question things and create my own wisdom rather than simply receiving the wisdom of others. It sounds good, this questioning and thinking. Then I got my first job. And my second job. And my third. I realized that I was so busy questioning that I wasn't able to learn from anyone. Instead, I questioned everything and made myself so obnoxious that no one wanted to work with me; I had no one left to learn from."

She went on to talk about how she had to learn to differentiate between other people's experiences and the conclusions that they drew from those experiences. How questioning wasn't about rejecting the experiences of others, but about rejecting conclusions that didn't have a solid basis.

And that got me to thinking. This woman doesn't work in the software space, but there is still something we can take from that.

Too many times I've been taking a class, or talking with colleagues, or teaching a group, and The Questioner shows up. The Questioner is the one who can't allow any statement to be made without starting to question it.

Now, asking questions can be a hugely valuable tactic. Questions let us increase our understanding of a topic. Questions help us lead a student down a path of learning (we call these leading questions for a reason!). Questions can help transition from evidence to conclusions.

Questioning can be highly disruptive. Questioning can stop a class in its tracks. It can derail a conversation. They can force the walking of a known path again to come to the same conclusion, thus wasting time and exasperating listeners.

The difference between good questions and bad questioning is subtle. Good questions are designed to gather information for the betterment of all the parties involved in a conversation. Bad questioning is intended to make someone look smart or grand at the expense of the other parties involved in the conversation.

Asking questions is actually quite different from questioning things, although both use the same syntax and both make use of interrogation points (also known as question marks). Asking questions is about learning. Questioning things is a method of expressing doubt in someone or something.

Sometimes questioning is a very good thing. After all, if we didn't question conclusions, we'd still believe that illnesses were caused by humors and that the planet didn't spin. Just make sure that questioning is based on understanding and evidence, not on ego and a desire to be smarter/bigger/stronger/more famous than someone else.

(Dear person who gets kicked out of multiple classes for being argumentative and disruptive: you are likely questioning everything for the attention and because you are a jerk, not because you're actually learning anything or providing value to anyone. Please stop or go away.)

So next time you ask a question, first ask yourself whether you're asking a question to help the group as a whole, or whether you're asking the question because you are smarter and you're going to show it. Then put your ego in check, open your ears, and understand.

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