Asking questions is supposed to be a good communication skill, often better than asserting your own points. We hear the value of questions in arenas ranging from sales to education to conflict resolution. But not all questions are valuable; some may just help to rearrange biases, maintain thinking ruts and tracks, or even strengthen mindsets.
Before jumping on the question train and riding it enthusiastically down the track, you may want to consider the purpose of any question you ask. If it is to help a person take multiple perspectives or grow beyond habitual responses or become aware of his or her thinking processes, then there are some questions you may want to forgo.
Last week I saw a list of questions for students and initially thought they were good, not only for educational purposes but perhaps for other interactions, too. But on second glance they made me a bit uneasy. So I sent them off to a colleague Dr. Susan Wolcott who is very wise in the art of questioning and in cognitive development. Her initial response was that the list of questions would help those being questioned to become stronger in the cognitive approach she calls Biased Jumper.
A brief overview of that cognitive approach: A Biased Jumper has an opinion and then marshalls information that supports his already-arrived-at opinion. The Biased Jumper is typically weak in her analysis process and overly confident in her conclusions. The cognitive skills of a Biased Jumper are limited. And, if one reads Otto Laske, Robert Kegan, Susan Wolcott,and others, we may conclude that about half the US population are Biased Jumpers!
What questions would we ask of others (and ourselves) to facilitate growth beyond Biased Jumper? Some are suggested below but for contrast let's first look at some of the questions on the list with which I was initially impressed. Included are Wolcott's comments (posted here with her permission). The questions from the list are in bold. Have you ever asked a client any of these questions?
Why do you think that? This question encourages students to provide reasons/arguments to support their own positions. With practice, Biased Jumpers can become very good at “stacking up” arguments in support of their position.
How do you know this? People operating at the lower cognitive levels are likely to view this question as basically the same as [the one above]. They will provide reasons rather than explore the degree to which what they think is supported.
Can you tell me more? Biased Jumpers are likely to simply stack up more reasons/arguments for what they think.
What questions do you still have? People operating at the lower cognitive levels are likely to ask only superficial questions.
For higher-level thinking, it would be best to encourage greater exploration of other perspectives. Here are some possible questions:
--Do you have any preferences/beliefs that might make it difficult for you to objectively consider other viewpoints?
--What are two (or more) different views on this topic, and the reasons for those views?
--What are the strongest arguments against your own view on this topic?
Those last three are excellent questions to remember, aren't they? And to ask ourselves on a daily basis about our most entrenched ideas.