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The Questions We Ask

April 10, 2018

“He who asks a question is possibly a fool for a moment; but he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” — Chinese proverb

What if you could increase the likelihood of a behavior by merely asking yourself a question about that behavior?

A research study aimed to do just that. The researchers evaluated two groups of people that received challenging tasks. The tasks ranged from going to the gym regularly, to solving difficult mental puzzles.

In response to each challenge, one group wrote statement-based positive affirmations, like “I will do this.” The other group wrote question-based affirmations, as in “Will I do this?

The results? Across all tasks, the questions-based affirmation groups were more focused, motivated, and successful in achieving their goals. This is known as the question-behavior effect.

Answers are a sought-after commodity. We want answers for how to live and what food to eat. We want answers for what career to choose and what strategy to pursue. Heck, we even want answers to the meaning of life.

But this obsession with answers deprives us of something more important, more powerful, and more meaningful:

The question.

Whereas answers are static, questions are dynamic. An answer might fix a problem right now, but a question keeps the door of the mind open to new answers in the future. “An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering,” says author Rachel Naomi Remen. “Life has no such stopping places.”

Whereas answers are context-dependent, questions provide context. “Questions are places in your mind where answers fit,” says Clay Christensen. “If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question — you have to want to know — in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”

Whereas answers are closed, questions are open-ended. The fact that a question hasn’t been answered makes us want to answer it. We have a constant itch to solve the puzzles in front of us, even if they can’t be answered. We’re pulled by an urge to resolve our own cognitive dissonance.

Of course, a question will always demand an answer. That’s kind of the point. But it’s not that answers themselves are bad. It’s that being too dependent on answers can blind us from more useful questions.

Some questions are better than others. For example, if you always ask yourself, “why does this always happen to me?”, then you will always be answering that question. You will always be trying to find answers for your own ineptitude and bad luck.

The best questions are not answered by facts. Instead, they’re answered through action. And those actions lead to further questions that challenge our deeply held assumptions and beliefs. Krista Tippett says the “measure of the strength of a question is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits.” The more a question forces us to be honest with ourselves, the better the question.

We are all faced with a choice: we can either chase answers, or we can follow questions.

So the question is: what questions are you following?

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