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SPEAKING CANDIDLY: THE ART OF ASKING PROFOUND QUESTIONS

By Richard Hames and Patricia Lustig


Language, specifically our ability to construct and communicate our reality through language, is the most beneficial evolutionary technology yet devised by our species. Fundamental to the role of language as an instrument for evolution is one form of utterance: the question. Questions are the keys that release the most rusted of locks. They can be elegant and insightful, banal and irrelevant, provocative or misleading. Questions can capture new knowledge, or simply shore up what is already known. 


The art of posing engaging questions enables us to excavate and examine what we know for sure, what we think we know, or pretend to know, and what we do not know. They can even signify knowledge that’s essentially unknowable for now – mysteries, at least with our current abilities and tools. Questions are the wellspring of our ability to craft compelling narratives – the true value within the field of foresight. 


We’re not referring to just any old questions, you understand, but intensely reflective inquiries designed to:


  • Detect and prise open what is ‘knowable’ but as yet unknown -- including great mysteries that still baffle us; 


  • Test the validity of what is assumed that we know -- including notions about how things work and the rules we subsequently impose on society in order to govern, organise and manage human affairs; and 


  • Challenge the very basis of how we know and interpret the pluralistic world of diverse events and experiences. 


These profound questions allow us to interrogate the world around us, comprehend, and take into account our personal biases, and appreciate multiple alternate accounts of our environs. Whether comfortingly supportive, or delightfully unsettling, they allow us to discover novelty, construct new meanings, and facilitate leaps of consciousness that warp the familiar and make the unfamiliar commonplace. 


Over time, asking the right questions at the right time and at differing logical levels evolves into systemic intelligence – a deeper understanding of relationships and causal factors in all the complexity of life. This iterative praxis, comprising observation, elucidation, calculation, and validation, can then be used to shine the spotlight of attention on matters of great import. 


Asking questions of substance, questions that truly matter, lead to conversations that make a difference. They do this by changing our thinking about what’s obvious and what’s not. Thinking differently, critically or creatively, is the key to opening new windows onto the world of our perceptions and casting new light on apathy, convention and ignorance. 


But where should we look to find the source for profound questions? How can we sift the banal from the insightful? Knowledge can be elusive. Sometimes asking an innocent question, unencumbered by what is known, can be more enlightening than the most articulate question posed by the smartest person in the room. So how should questions be constructed in order that they reveal more than they conceal?


In general, there are three principles relevant to the art of conversation as inquiry:


1. Profound questions often arise from a quest to know more about our shared worldview (or beliefs about what is right or wrong, good or bad) along with the world-systems of laws and accepted rules, events, models and processes that manifest substantially and materially from those worldviews


For example: What is it about our beliefs that allows these conditions/situations to persist? What are the underlying currents causing events to unfold in this manner?


2. Being inquisitive is often the driver, particularly being curious about contextual evidence that contrasts with the shifting dynamics of change as personally experienced. 


For example: What is happening that conflicts with our understanding of what should happen? Why is this the case? 


3. Seeking patterns that either make immediate sense or cause confusion can also surface some of the most critical questions that need to be asked. 


For example: Can we identify any significant patterns, trends, discontinuities or structural changes that we hadn’t previously seen? How could we have missed seeing them before?


Obviously, there’s an art in knowing what questions to ask, in any situation, which will help surface relevant information about: 


  • What you need to know to improve your understanding of what’s actually going on (i.e. systemic questions) in order to appreciate; and


  • How you, and others, can or should act in the circumstances (i.e. strategic questions).  


In any complex situation, the best questions to ask initially are ‘open’ in nature. Open questions can feel unstructured and messy as they do not have simple direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. On the contrary, they tend to elicit an abundance of (occasionally conflicting) points of view and underlying assumptions. Don’t be put off by this. You can only reach a useful understanding of complex situations by allowing yourself to move slowly through the chaos and confusion.  Seek information from a diverse range of people. Include non-experts as well as those intimately involved with the situation under investigation. Counterintuitively the most valuable insights and innovative ideas often come from the fringe, not experts! 


The resulting information needs to sit and percolate before we can begin to understand what is important and what is merely noise. Only when you can sense the ‘big picture’ from asking ‘open’ questions should you then start asking more direct and practically motivated ‘closed’ questions such as: What will we do? Who needs to be involved? What will it cost? How should we monitor progress? What measures are important?


There are any number of tools that help in this regard. Appreciative Inquiry [AI] is one such affirmative device that employs questions and dialogue to help participants uncover existing strengths, advantages, or opportunities in their communities, organizations, or teams. Initial questions are divergent. Questions such as, What is the best of what is? and What is the best of what could be? leverage open the inquiry, while questions such as, What is the best of what should be? and What is the best of what will be? are convergent, narrowing the aperture on more granular detail.


Different lenses when applied to information can trigger very different types of questions. In that regard another very useful tool is the classic ‘iceberg’ model of morphological analysis where different types of questions elicit very different levels of inquiry. Navigating these levels of conversation allow us to delve deeply into the uncertainties of any situation, so that we can then make far better sense of what it is we’re observing – as well as what it is not of course.


Source: Richard Hames & Marvin Oka (after Edward T. Hall) in Strategic Navigation methodology [1995]

Just as the field of foresight accesses futures-related intelligence concerning past, present and potential states, so foresight practitioners tend to develop a very specific expertise around quite distinctive sets of questions. The most accomplished foresight practitioners are like the best medical diagnosticians – they have a nose for rapidly understanding a situation or issue and where it fits into a model of the ecosystem they are examining. It’s as though they are able to sniff the air and understand instantly the health, or otherwise, of the system-in-focus. How do they do this? What is the skill? Can it be learned?


Actually it’s no mystery. Uncertainty, ambiguity, and a healthy scepticism are fundamental. Doubt, it has often been said, is the origin of wisdom, and holding certainty in abeyance for a time can be rewarding. An aptly directed question on the pulse point of reality is always going to be more useful than a spray of ‘correct’ answers, because of the high probability of getting lost in a labyrinth of possible responses. Also, there’s a higher likelihood of discovering something beyond banal ‘answers’ by interrogating responses relentlessly and from differing perspectives.


So, as implied, as stated above, it’s simply a matter of asking the right questions of the right people from which a ‘model’ of the whole system can emerge. Setting aside any overly complicated procedures and focusing on the art itself requires practice of course. But almost anyone can become an accomplished foresight practitioner if they can hold diverse viewpoints in their heads so as to sort the ‘noise’ from the ‘truth’ and learn to pose questions that really do matter and that are deeper and more seminal than the inconsequential litany of surface events.


 

Dr. Richard Hames, based in Bangkok, is a senior statesman in the field of strategic foresight. Founder of the Centre for the Future and a Fellow of the World Academy of Art & Science, Richard is currently co-founder of The Ecority Trust, a small cadre of investors exploring new civilisational models inspired by love and stewardship. His mentoring clientele includes heads of state, government ministers, leading CEOs, and some of the world’s most innovative entrepreneurs.




Patricia Lustig is a highly respected consultant, author and practitioner in foresight and strategy development, futures thinking and innovation. She has held senior roles at Logica (Software Development), Motorola (Organisational Development), and at BP (Strategy and Organisational Learning), She is a Board Member of the APF and Programme Director of their flagship Emerging Fellows programme. Patricia has written numerous articles and is the author of five books including the award-winning, Strategic Foresight: Learning from the Future.


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