Why are the questions always more powerful than the answers?

Episode 051

Nov 1, 2023

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What is a Question?

Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, "What else could this mean?
~ Shannon L. Alder ~

Albert grunted. "Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?"
Mort thought for a moment. "No," he said eventually, "what?"
There was silence. Then Albert straightened up and said,
"Damned if I know. Probably, they get answers, and serve 'em right."
~ Terry Pratchett, Mort ~

The wise man does not give the right answers, he poses the right questions.
~ Claude Levi-Straus ~

Part of being successful is about asking questions and listening to the answers.
~ Anne Burrell ~

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.
~ Voltaire ~

[Listen at approximately 01:25]

You may have noticed that the theme today revolves around questions and questioning.

Questioning is an art, a skill, and, like all skills, it takes practice, reflection, making mistakes, not finding the answers we were looking for, and reworking the process to improve.

The Oxford Dictionary describes the meaning of a question as a sentence, phrase, or word that asks for information.

And they are fascinating because, depending on the question, we receive different responses verbally, physically, and emotionally.

When looking at safety, we're not merely examining one aspect; we're considering emotional, physical, and psychological safety. In other words, what emotions can different questions stir up?

Another essential aspect to consider is how a question is asked.

When we did some of this research and from our own experience, some interesting words came up when we thought about the meaning. We can relate to some or many of these words at different stages.

When we get asked a question, it could be a matter for investigation, and we're not necessarily referring to safety here; it could relate to other aspects of our lives. It could be an interrogation or an interrogative sentence, an investigation of some sort, or we could simply be asking, inquiring, or querying something.

[Listen at approximately 03:22]

Some are direct, while others are more indirect. You've got your yes-or-no questions and the ones that force critical thinking. Sometimes, they can spark our curiosity, and, well, we've all come across those leading questions from time to time.

We like to explore different styles of questioning, and in E042, we looked at the conversational intelligence and some of the neuroscience behind our words.

The words we use can have a surprising impact on us.

Sometimes, certain words can set off a burst of cortisol in our system, making us react in a particular way, or they might trigger a release of oxytocin, leaving us feeling quite different. So, questions can play a big role in shaping how we feel and act on any given day.

Imagine this scenario:

You've just started your day, heading to the office or the job site, feeling pretty good.

Then, someone asks you, "So, why didn't you finish that task yesterday?" Suddenly, it's like a balloon deflating; you pick up on the tone, and your day takes a nosedive.

Of course, whether you let it get to you is another story, and that leads us nicely into:

"Why do people sometimes stop asking questions?"

[Listen at approximately 04:55]


Whenever I'm asked this, it always takes me back to one of my friends who was in the army. It was their first debriefing, still in basic training, and the sergeant asked [at the end of the briefing] if there were any questions - it was all in Afrikaans.

So my friend put his hand up, and the sergeant said 'ja' [yes], he asked and the sergeant said,
'Kak vra, sit, enige ander vra?' [shit question, sit down, any other questions?]

Nobody got up.
Nobody put their hand up.

How many times have we felt that in some shape or form?
And sometimes, it's not that direct, but it's the tone or the facial expression.

Another good friend of mine - she must have been in her first or second job, so she was in her early 20s. She was working for a foreign national living in South Africa, and there was the language barrier, accent, all that kind of stuff, and she couldn't understand what this man wanted.

She kept going back to him and asking, 'Could you tell me again? Could you tell me again? Sorry, could you tell me again?'

Eventually, he looked at her and said, "Three times, you've asked me three times, are you stupid?"

Thinking of the multinational and multicultural environments that many of us work in, you then just shut down and think, well, is it me?

[Listen at approximately 07:49]

So why else?

Embarrassment - I should know this, or no one else is putting their hand up to ask the question, so clearly, I'm the only one who doesn't know it.

The reality is that most people in the room are sitting with the same burning question, waiting for someone brave enough to speak up and say: Can I ask a bit more about this, or what is happening here?


I've been one of those people. Oh, we all have, if we're honest, school experiences.

I was that kid, terrified to put up my hand and ask a question. I was terrified that I didn't know. Back then, I didn't understand that asking is what helps me to know. It's part of the learning process.

It took me many, many years to understand that it's okay to ask a question regardless of the response and took years of overcoming shyness and becoming braver in many ways.

In schools, you often find different cultural vibes, and we've had this conversation with people worldwide.

One person said what he finds so devastating about the schooling system in his country is that it's become a norm not to ask questions, that people will instead go home and use Google to try and find out the answers. Everyone will pretend they know, and devastatingly, that learned behaviour then carries over into the working environment.

People don't put their hands up and ask; instead, they say, 'Yes, yes, I've got this', and then try to find the answers on Google or some other way of learning. Sometimes, this approach leads to mistakes and, in the worst-case scenario, can lead to harm.

This pattern is common nowadays.

In a world where information is at our fingertips, it should be easier to feel comfortable asking questions. Yet, for some reason, it often doesn't.

Asking questions can make us feel exposed in many ways.

It's a form of vulnerability, and we're touching on a somewhat controversial point here. But it seems like there's a trend where we're expected to accept everything without question.

We're stepping on eggshells a lot in our working environments. We can't ask certain things or voice certain thoughts because someone might take it the wrong way or be offended, and it's feeding this inability to speak up.

Trust ... plays an important role

[Listen at approximately 10:00]

We don't know the answer, but it affects trust in our working environments, and trust is such a key part of all of this; it plays a very important role.

When we talk about psychological safety, we're referring to the ability [one of the key factors of psychological safety] to feel safe enough to speak up, to ask questions, not to be marginalized or to feel punished.

The current environment often makes that quite challenging.

At the same time, we're looking for ways to improve our diversity and inclusion efforts. Well, psychological safety and trust underpin all of that. So, if we feel unsafe to ask, we have a long way to go with everything else.

Why do we find it challenging to respond to questions as well?

It's often the fear that if we respond to a question, or if we answer a question, we'll be drawn into a situation we'd rather avoid - social media is a classic example. It could lead to a lengthy rant, so we opt not to engage, especially when it involves people we don't know. While we do have an opinion, we'd rather keep it to ourselves.

This becomes an issue in our working environments when we hold an opinion but don't feel we can contribute to the conversation because we prefer to keep it to ourselves.

Sometimes, it's because we haven't been given the time to think and formulate our answer, and by the time we've shaped what we'd like to say or answer, people have already moved on.

We are often unsure of how to give feedback or respond to things, depending on what it is.

Not every question requires feedback, but let's say that it is - there are many different types of questions, so depending on the style of the question, the context, and, as leaders, a really important part of all of this is listening and not putting people on the spot.

There are very few people who can pop an answer off the top of their head. So it's the asking the question, the listening and creating a space where people feel they don't have to pop straight off their heads; they can first process and then respond.

The Linguistic Acts

[Listen at approximately 13:15]


Part of the concern regarding all of this is that we aren't really taught about it in schools [thinking back to my earlier years], or at least not in my era.

We weren't taught how to engage in a conversation or what constitutes the foundations of language.

I'm not referring to grammar but rather the actual structure of language, the art of speaking, and how different actions can elicit various responses. Unless we all comprehend this, it can be very challenging.

Consequently, as we were discussing this, we decided that our next episode would focus on something known as the linguistic act.

We plan to take you on a journey to explore the different forms of linguistic acts, the nuances of conversations, questions, and the situations you find yourself in. Understanding these aspects is essential because our responses depend on them.

So, be on the lookout for that episode next week and give it a listen.
It promises to be quite enjoyable.

What does this mean for us as leaders?

[Listen at approximately 14:34]

We need to get used to asking questions and also feel comfortable listening to the answers without being judgmental. It's important not to let our thoughts distract us while listening, and we shouldn't be listening to respond.

We've covered various aspects of listening in previous episodes, and you can find a list of related episodes in the resource section below, all about questioning and feedback.

As a leader, it's essential to be comfortable knowing that if you don't ask questions, you won't understand what others know or don't know, and you won't grasp where they're coming from. By asking questions, you not only gather valuable information but also enrich the team's discussions.

This skill is particularly crucial in leadership, and it becomes even more significant in our ever-changing world, full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity [VUCA].

[Listen at approximately 15:31]


I remember years ago when Karin and I were in the office, and she asked someone a question. I was doing a typical Nuala, immediately answering it for them, and Karin gave me this look of
'Could you let someone else speak?'

Afterwards, I asked her why she even asked the question because, of course, they knew that, and she told me to hold off on my assumptions because how did I know they knew?

It was very purposeful the question Karin had asked, and it wasn't to find out if I knew;
it was to find out what the other people in the room knew.

With me jumping in, she lost the opportunity to discover what other people knew.

It was a fantastic lesson and a really good learning experience for me as a facilitator, as a coach, and as a leader. By thinking I was making it easier for the people around me [by answering the question], I was taking away their learning experience and opportunity.

I've taken that into my coaching work and facilitation work by asking the supposed apparent questions, and it's incredible what a different conversation that elicits.

On the other side of that, it's not about stepping on eggshells, but it's creating an environment where people feel safe to speak up and respond, and that keeps bringing us back to:

~ Treat people as human beings, and
~ Give permission and respect to whoever's in the room.

Those are two crucial components that build psychological safety and trust in teams, and it also goes back to that understanding that people are different; they're not trying to be difficult.

When we run sessions, whether onshore, offshore, or online, we have an asking question session, and some people will dive in, others will skirt around the question. Some take what feels like forever to answer a relevant question.

It's around how people process, and it's been comfortable with that; not everyone processes simultaneously.

For some people, it's like bamboo; they just shoot, and other people are like oak trees; they take a very long time to germinate, and then suddenly you start seeing leaves blooming.

What are the components of a good question?

[Listen at approximately 18:15]

1- Relevant to the topic or task.
2- Clear and easy-to-understand language.

Remember also that many people are processing in multiple languages, which takes time.

3- Be simple; ask one question at a time.

We might have three or four questions burning in our head; however, asking them straight after each other, the person only remembers the last question, and the first or second may have been the most important.

4- Keep it short

Be as clear and succinct as you can. Asking questions is not about showing off your knowledge. It's about soliciting a great response and getting the answers that you need.

5- Allow time for people to think

Don't ask a question and then proceed to answer it.

6- Open questions that encourage thinking

In different situations, it's important to think about the type of questions we use. Open questions, which encourage people to think and explore, are generally a good approach. They make conversations more interesting and curious. On the other hand, leading questions can make people feel like they're being manipulated and put them on guard.

Consider the five W's and one H - who, what, where, when, how, and why - effective ways to start open questions. However, be cautious with "why" questions, as they can come across as critical or judgmental, especially when considering tone of voice.

Closed questions, which typically have yes or no answers, have their place, especially when you need a straightforward response. But if you want to have a deeper conversation, you can follow up a closed question with an open one like, "Could you tell me more about that?"

In coaching and communication, the question "And what else?" is a valuable tool. It encourages people to share more information, and you can ask it multiple times to ensure you've got the whole picture.

7- Ask questions for which you have no answer

In conversational intelligence, a key practice is to ask questions even when you don't have the answers, creating curiosity. So, whether you genuinely don't know the answers or even if you think you do, maintain a curious mindset. Some example questions include:

  • What insights would you like to share?
  • What are your thoughts on this task?
  • How could we make this process more efficient and safe?
  • And, of course, what else could this mean?
  • Then, follow up with "And what else?" to encourage further exploration.

The concept of "double-clicking" is worth exploring further, and it reminds us of a handy three-letter acronym - TEDs - which stands for:

  • "Tell me more about that."
  • "Explain to me what you mean; I'm not sure I understand."
  • "Describe, so describe to me what was happening or what your thoughts are."

TEDs provide a helpful framework for asking questions that go beyond the usual "how," "what," "when," and "why" questions. They are highly effective in promoting deeper conversations.

Remember, if you don't receive the answer you were looking for, it's a good idea to change your question rather than repeat it in hopes of a different response.

After all, the questions are always more powerful than the answers, and questions can be seeds that are planted.

You may not always get the answer that you're seeking or the whole answer when it's asked; however, as long as you've planted the seed and you are allowing space for people to sit and think in the question for a while, they will eventually answer it, even if you're not around.

May this inspire you
to get comfortable with questions that may not have answers
rather than answers that cannot be questioned.

E051_Why are the questions always more powerful than the answers? - The Question Poem


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About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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