This article was originally written by Michael Hall - gently edited by The Coaching Room
“The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.” - Milan Kundera
While questions are powerful, and the right question at the right time can actually unleash potentials and enable them to become actual in a person’s life, yet not all questions are useful, effective, or life-supporting. This is especially true of questions that are vaguely phrased and/or questions with vague terms. Such questions in them can actually either encourage limitations or create limitation.
How bad do you feel now that you know that you really do lack X competency?
Some questions are unanswerable. Wendell Johnson in People in Quandries (1946) gives these examples: “Why was I born? “Should I get married? Is it right to make a lot of money? What is the meaning of life? Am I a failure?
There’s an interesting thing about answers. Answers that are inaccurate, false, and even crazy, can non-the-less be comforting. Now imagine that! How is that possible? It’s possible because answers operate as the end-game of questions in that they stop the inner mental search!
“People in quandaries are peculiar not only because they persist in asking themselves ... vague and unanswerable questions, but also because they don’t realise that their questions are unanswerable. In fact, they don’t seem to realise that their maladjustment is in any way related to their persistence in asking, and in trying to answer, such questions. They seem quite puzzled by the suggestion that their questions need rewording. ... they want answers, absolute, now-and-forever, correct answers. ... Answers can be very relaxing.”
From this realisation we need to put out a warning: Beware of Answers— They can be Dangerous to your Curiosity, Learning, and Development! With an answer, we can feel that we have settled an inquiry and there’s nothing else to explore. With an answer, we can feel that “I now know” there’s nothing else to be said. There’s nothing else to be added to it and no additional richness to be contributed.
Now involved in the kind of thinking that leads to these conclusions is an assumption, namely, “There is one answer to a question.” Consequently, when we come upon an answer, which may be legitimate and valid for what it offers, we are generally quick to conclude that the search is over, let’s move on to the next problem to solve. Yet when it comes to answers, a question can have multiple answers and the answers can range from satisfying to very satisfying to very resourceful, and on to brilliant. So being satisfied with one answer and especially with “the first answer” is dangerous and blinding. It can shut down your search for truly great answers.
It’s paradoxical. We ask questions to get answers and yet if we settle for the first answer or for one answer, we often can end up in a position that’s worse than where we began. What then shall we do?
Heeding the warning that answers can be dangerous, we can hold our celebrations when we get an answer to see if there are additional answers as well. Then we can “quality control” the answers to check if they are good answers, resourceful answers, relevant answers, and the best quality answers. We can ask additional questions to check for cognitive biases or fallacies in the answers. We can ask a question-after-the-last-question.
For example, “If that is the answer to the question, what is the question I can or should now be asking?”
When I do “Q-and-A” sessions at trainings and seminars and places— sometimes a question asked does not really allow me to follow-up with the kind of response that adds additional value to the person asking. The question may be mis-formed in some way, may have too many presuppositions in it, may be too convoluted, etc. The challenge I’ve experienced is— “How do I answer the real question, the question behind the question and provide ideas or “answers” that will enhance the person?”
Sometimes a biased question, or one limited by the way it is phrased, essentially prevents me from directly answering it. First I either have to explore with the person what they are really wanting to know or rephrase the question. Otherwise a technically “true” answer can become untrue or at least unuseful. Answers, just like questions, are not always as simple or straightforward as they may seem or we may wish. They can be biased in all sorts of ways.