The little boy was curious and always asking questions.
Over and over again he would ask his increasingly impatient mother why, how come, how far, how long, when, where and what. But his grandfather would gently smile and say, ‘That is a wise boy; for you are only one question away from being a better person.’
The young man who shared this with me observed that Canadian culture is very individualistic and isolating, and we tend to have a fear of asking questions. Certainly, depending on your background or upbringing, asking was a delightful exploration or a risk.
Too often, people view inquiry or asking for opinions or solutions as weak. A societal refresh on the art of seeking and asking has been long overdue.
As an outgoing introvert (if that makes any sense), I admired those who boldly asked questions. Over time it was clear to me that those who asked questions were wiser and more confident than those who worked at being well informed. Often a good question set the stage for looking at simple things in a little more complex manner or took a complex situation and broke it down into simple parts.
In the world of systems, this is a proven theory. The complex becomes simple and the simple becomes complex. Think about this in terms of asking the questions of all the stakeholders (those who have an interest) in any situation. Rather than being overwhelmed by the complex, break it into segments.
On the farm, an outbreak in a barn of a specific disease seems a very complex situation. But asking questions in each area of production and health management often results in simple changes that avoid a reoccurrence of the problem.
It could have been that the one animal that was introduced without having some quarantine and adjustment time triggered a respiratory illness that affected the entire herd. A change in protocol might be a solution. The complex becomes simple.
Now this simple protocol leads to a complex conversation. The curious mind moves forward; asking about the entire event regarding the animal entering the barn. Where is she from? What is her history? What conditions did she come from? Was she ever in a barn before? What about transportation, weather, handling, feed and water availability? Did she eat on arrival? Was she cleared by a veterinarian before going into a closed barn? The simple becomes complex.
If this process sounds like it echoes the questions of a toddler, you are right.
Why that cow? Where is she from? Did somebody hurt her? How do you know? And so it goes for hours and hours.
But like the little boy who was one question away from being a better person, so is the curious mind just one question away from both being better informed and having yet another question.
Being polite rather than inquisitive is admirable, but it does not serve us well when it comes to creative leadership or the creation of learning spaces where challenge is invited. Taking a conversation out of linear entrenchment needs a process — one in which we learn to ask.
Ernesto Sirolli (an expert in sustainable economic development) tells the story of taking tomato production from Italy to Africa in an effort to ‘help’ the village. The Italians planted the tomatoes while the locals simply advised them against it. Those tomatoes were lovely but the night before harvest the hippos came and ate the entire crop. The Italian team emotionally inquired from the locals why they were not told of this possibility. “You never asked,” was the simple reply.
It might be the family dinner that was missed. Or the frustrated child who needs to be asked how he got that bruise. It might have been the holiday that was interrupted or the marriage that failed because we forgot to look at the other person — and ask.
In business how often do we go into a situation of change and put the pressure on ourselves to ‘know’ or to learn quickly without asking? Certainly we are not the only ones in the room with the same question but our fear of appearing without knowledge keeps us from asking the pivotal question that may lead to moving forward.
You have a right to ask. And usually, those being asked are honoured by the question. The soft skills of asking and of listening are critical for social advancement. Breaking the construct of authority and silence and leading toward creative thought and solutions may be just one question away.