The first question to ask of any question is “Why am I asking this question?”
We may think it is to genuinely seek new information and insights but in practice it is all too often to simply confirm existing beliefs and biases.
If we are to truly master the art of transparent questions, we must become aware of potential biases and assumptions in the questions themselves.
Remember, how a question is framed and worded conditions how it will be the answered.
To make the process more tangible let’s take a real-world question:
Is President Biden too old to run for a second term?
Keep the question in mind as we go through the steps. We will come back to it at the end so that you can see the process in action.
A) Identify Biases: Does the question presuppose a certain answer?
This is incredibly commonplace and reasonably easy to spot because the words are out in the open. Once you start paying attention, you may be surprised how many pre-filled questions you notice. I’ve particularly noticed this with multi-part questions where the second part conditions the first. Biases may well be unconscious and ingrained rather than a deliberate attempt to skew the question and yet they remain biases.
B) Evaluate Assumptions: What must be true for this question to make sense?
Every question assumes something. For example, the above question assumes that a question should make sense. To whom? Another way of asking this question is: What does this question take for granted?
Unearthing assumptions is really important because the question may well be based on a wholly false premise.
C) Understand Worldviews: How might the background or experiences of the person asking have influenced the question?
Questions are not asked in a vacuum but rather within a shared reality shaped by societal norms, beliefs and values. Even though absolutely neutral on their face, questions often reflect the worldviews or cultural perspectives of the person asking.
For example, “Would you like tea or coffee?” seems innocuous. And yet, I have lived in cultures where binary questions are almost the default. Over time, this dramatically limits what people can think and embeds binary thinking (good / bad, one of us / one of them).
This particular question could be made cleaner by asking “What can I offer you to drink?” It still assumes that the person wants something to drink but is possibly an acceptable trade-off compared with the purer “Would you like something to drink?” (Yes / No). If Yes, ask “What would you like to drink?”
D) Cleanse the Language
If you identify biases, assumptions or worldviews, try to ask the question in a more neutral and objective manner. This is about making the unconscious conscious.
E) Decouple the Questioner
John Rawls, a legal theorist, developed the idea of the Veil of Ignorance. If you were to be born into a society but didn’t know anything about your place in it, how would you construct it to ensure it was a just society? What rights should every citizen have?
Using the same principle, analyse the question as if it were coming from a third party with no interest in the outcome. Try to strip away any cues that might tie it to a specific person or perspective. See the example at the end to see this step in action.
F) Question the Process: What might we have lost sight of in this process?
This is about reflecting on the process rather than on the question. This is to assess whether the process may have been based on faulty assumptions.
Also, let’s not forget that biases and assumptions can provide valuable insights and help us understand how different people engage with and understand the world.
Removing all biases and assumptions may strip questions of their context, making them overly abstract or even meaningless. And yet that in itself is interesting information.
G) What Purpose Does the Question Serve?
Questions are in many ways statements or, in other words, answers to other questions. It can be really helpful to get a sense for the bigger questions the question may be trying to answer. This is therefore about placing the question in its broader context and understanding its implications.
Example: Is President Biden too old to run for a second term?
- Identify Biases: It doesn’t matter whether it was intentional, but this question is clearly ageist.
- Evaluate Assumptions: It implies that an older person may not be able to fulfil the role regardless of their physical or mental health.
- Understand Worldviews: It clearly places greater weight on youth and vibrancy.
- Cleanse the Language: The question could be worded as follows – What are your thoughts on President Biden running for a second term?
- Decouple the Questioner: This is obviously context dependent as each person will ask something different. The Veil of Ignorance approach would suggest that a wholly neutral questioner might pare the question back and ask something like: “What factors should be considered in assessing a candidate’s readiness to become president?”
- Question the Process: As mentioned above, the question just focuses on a single factor (age) and excludes a whole series of potentially relevant considerations. Rather than trying to make the question more neutral, perhaps the basic premise of the question should have been challenged.
- What Purpose Does the Question Serve? The actual purpose would depend on who asked the question but, all else being equal, it feels like an implied criticism that he is indeed too old. It may well be an attempt to persuade citizens to vote for another candidate who is younger and more vibrant (even if only marginally).
Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. In fact, I increasingly find that the world is questioning me as much as I question it. Questions are waiting for me, pretty much everywhere I look. The question then is How comfortable am I with being questioned?
What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.