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Ask the 'right' questions

It's a skill that can be learned for problem solving

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Albert Einstein, the world-renowned physicist made famous through his theory of relativity, was also known for his general skill in problem solving. In fact, he once stated that if he had one hour of his life left to save the world, he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes of time on the solution. In other words, his message is that there's a lot more power in asking questions and the "right" questions to define a problem rather than simply jumping in and trying to find a solution. But believe it or not, many of us continually jump right into a problem instead of stepping back and investing time in defining the problem.

As you might expect, the solutions to problems depend on how much time you spend on defining the problem. Therefore, applying a question-based strategy to problem-solving has a number of benefits. For instance, asking questions gives you personal power and control over a conversation. The information you glean from responses to your questions gives you power. In addition, the questions you ask also force you to develop better listening skills. The so-called open-ended questions are particularly helpful because they allow another person to give a broader response, which in turn provides you with more information.

Questions can also help you to understand another person better as responses may provide personal details and allow you to show empathy toward others and begin building relationships. Then again, a strategy of using rhetorical questions allows you to make your point without expecting a response.

However, here's a question for you: Can questioning be learned and/or is it a natural skill? The answer is yes, the art of asking questions can be learned and in fact, in my view, learning to be critical thinkers should be part of your training curriculum. Asking questions is a creative process and a strategy that helps people use their imagination and to explore new insights. Let's take a look at some questioning techniques that you can adapt in your workplace right now.

Rephrase the problem -- the words we use in describing the problem play a key role in how people perceive the problem. The tactic then is to rephrase the problem. Try substituting one word at a time with different variations and word replacements, repeat the problem to see if the perception has been changed. When the perceptions change, the solutions to solving the problem will change as well.

Reverse the problem -- if you are really stuck with a problem, try turning it on its head. For instance, if you are looking for a way to provide better customer service, think instead of how you can make it worse -- then flip this back into the positive.

Gather your facts -- while gathering your facts seems to be so obvious, it's often the most neglected part of problem solving. You need to investigate your facts and seek in-depth information so that you have all of the details. If you don't do this step well, your problem description will be too vague and your solution will not be as effective.

Avoid self-limiting labels -- we all have some form of internal feedback and so when we say "that won't work" without exploring things, it simply shuts the door on your creative thinking. Thoughts and comments such as this are self-limiting labels. Instead restate your problem and add more questions until you run out of ideas, but stay away from being negative.

Widen your view -- in many cases we look at a problem from too narrow a perspective when in fact, the problem is probably part of a bigger problem. Stand back and look at the big picture, ask what part this problem plays in a larger problem. Brainstorm the elements of the problem from all angles.

Dig deep -- from the other perspective, your problem also consists of many smaller problems. Therefore, try to decompose the problem into its smaller pieces. Once again, use the word substitution strategy to get your creative juices going.

Marilee Adams, author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, suggests that there are only two paths to asking questions, that of a learner versus a judger. In her view, the judger path of questioning is more of a reactive response to a problem. When someone takes the path of judgmental questioning, they ask questions such as, "why am I a failure?" or "whose fault is it?" This type of questioning is nothing short of blaming and labelling that only creates a sense of negativity around the problem, which in turn simply causes you to be stuck.

On the other hand, taking a learner approach to asking questions sends people down the path of creativity and idea generation. For instance, answers to the questions "what happened?" "what are the facts?" "what assumptions am I making?" provide you with much more information and take you down the path of exploring new possibilities.

Earlier, I mentioned that anyone can learn to be better at the art of asking questions and I truly believe that.

However, Adams also has a very good point in that we each have control over which path to problem-solving we take. The challenge is being mindful of our own thoughts, our feelings and our language and to catch ourselves if we start down the path of judgmental questions. Asking judgmental questions shuts down any creativity and solutions are then constrained by the narrowness of the problem-solving technique.

In her view, being a good self-observer is the key to ensuring you are going down the path of asking questions from a learning perspective.

Learning to build your skills in the art of question thinking adds several benefits to both individuals and the organization. Having strength in the art of questioning helps individuals to look at issues from a futuristic perspective rather than simply from past practice.

Stronger question thinking skills also helps people to look past old tried and true conventional solutions to find new ideas.

Overall, having employees who are more effective at question thinking improves teamwork and takes advantage of the diversity of ideas within your workplace.

While we hope we'll never be left with only one hour of our life left to save the world, spending time up front defining the problem is time well spent.

Source: Change your Questions, Change your Life, Marilee Adams, Berrett-Koehler Publications; 2009. Einstein's Secret to Amazing Problem Solving, litemind.com

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 H1

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