When I was living in London years ago, a man in his fifties approached me for clarinet lessons. He wanted to take up the instrument secretly to be in tune with his 10-year-old son who’d just started lessons. It turned out that this man was Associate Editor of the Sunday Times, and during several years of lessons I got to know him quite well.
There was one thing that surprised me about a man in his position, and that was his willingness in any context to ask questions that I sometimes thought were rather dumb. It made me realise how often I myself held back from asking questions in case they sounded stupid. When my Sunday Times pupil asked naive-sounding questions, little by little he got at the truth. If he could ask dumb questions, why couldn’t I? Coming as I did from a family who didn’t ask for help even when hopelessly lost, this was somewhat of a revelation.
Out of the mouth of babes
Another ten-year-old, Hannah Bradshaw, leaped into the limelight this week when she asked a couple of questions of American Congressman Jason Chaffetz at a town hall meeting in his home state of Utah. Chaffetz, together with over 56% of congressional republicans is a climate-change denier (yes, I know, 56%). Hannah asked, “What are you doing to help protect our water and air for our generations and my kids’ generations?” … followed by the simple question, “Do you believe in science? Because I do.” Out of the mouth of babes – what a beautiful question! Chaffetz blustered for quite a while with political inanities and people started yelling at him, “Answer the question!” But he couldn’t find a satisfactory response, and eventually boos and outbursts from the crowd ended the town hall meeting in chaos.
Inventing dumb questions
I think it might be appropriate in our age to bring back more dumb/naive/simple questions. Randomly, I’ve just thought of:
Why do weather forecasters describe sunshine as beautiful weather and rain as bad weather? (My Ugandan friend finds it most puzzling! She says rain means glorious green fields, food crops and water to drink.)
Why do we talk about glorious war, but not glorious bullying?
Why is pleasurable extended endeavour called ‘hard work’?
What ‘dumb’ questions can you think of? Children tend to be best at this:
Why is the sky dark at night?
What holds the universe up?
Where did your life come from?
Einstein was pretty good at it:
What if I could ride a beam of light across the universe?
The best questions
Naive questions can work brilliantly in meetings – for instance,
Why exactly are we doing this particular thing?
when everyone is rushing headlong into the what and how of an initiative.
Have you ever been at a conference or seminar where someone asks the dumb question everyone wanted to ask but didn’t dare to? As people hear the question, you hear a tiny sigh of satisfaction around the room. So maybe it wasn’t a dumb question after all?
Another crucial dumb question is the one asked by someone who is new to an organisation. “Why do we do this particular task?” “Why do we talk about our clients (or women, or management) in this way?” they ask, cutting through the company culture and organisational bias, forcibly struck by injustices that everyone else has become blind to through familiarity.
When we get used to something, questions stop. One of the secrets of creative thinking is to come at everything without preconceptions – with “beginners’ mind”, approaching everything with clear-eyed wonder as if we have never encountered it in our lives before. For when we are fully awake and attentive, we have never encountered it before; nothing is already known and many questions arise. (By the way, I used the snow leopard for the picture above because the animal in this National Geographic silent video seems to portray brilliantly clear-eyed wonder that reaches every fibre.) Henri Matisse as an old man said his aim was still “to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.” In this state, questions are simple and profound.
Maybe dumb questions asked by geniuses are what we desperately need more of in our world today? Nobel laureate scientist Isidor Isaac Rabi’s mother used to ask her after school each day: “Issie, did you ask a good question today?”
So what are the questions for you? I know we all have our own personal filters, that we see the world as we are rather than as it is. But what are you not seeing, or refusing to see? What’s staring you in the face? What simple naive question might jolt you into a moment of realisation? What is the question you need to ask? – that is the question.
Feeling stuck? Don’t know what questions to ask yourself? Decision time? Need an impartial listening ear? A few simple conversations with a coach can be life changing and worth the investment many times over. Email me or call me on 01306 886114 if you want an initial conversation about what coaching might do for you.
I attended an interesting workshop with Jason last month. His thoughtful article on confusion links quite well with my theme this month.
It’s not just what we say, it’s how we say it. Do you realise what an amazing potential resource we have in our voice? If you don’t like your voice, you can change it; you’ll experience positive results after even a single coaching session. . Email me or call me on 01306 886114.
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In England this week, we’re loving the spring sunshine.
Happy times wherever you are.