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August 01, 2016 Monday 07:17:45 PM IST

Prime your creative pump with suitable questions

Creative Living

Questions as the key


The word “question” is derived from the Latin root “quaerere” which means “to ask” or “to seek”. It shares the same root with the word “quest”. A creative life is a sustained quest, and questions are the favorite tools in this pursuit. In fact, quest is enshrined in a question, which acts as an arrow that pierces the eyes of the creativity wellsprings. A well-asked question is already half the answer. “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom,” suggests Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the British statesman and philosopher. John Ruskin goes beyond the halfway mark and suggests: “To be able to ask a question clearly is two-thirds of the way to getting it answered.” “A good question carries its answer on its back just as a snail carries its shell,” comments James Stephens, the Irish Poet (1882-1950). In short, the “Question Mark (?) or the “Question Stop”, as it was known in 19th century, is an important instrument of creative quest. One needs to master the art and science of asking suitable questions that engender creativity. “Questions provide the key to unlocking our unlimited potential,” writes Tony Robbins, the American motivational speaker. It is not the abundance of answers we have that makes us creative; rather it is the quality of our questions. “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers,” recommends Voltaire (1694- 1778), the French writer and historian. Asking questions is part of child development. “Asking questions is what our brains were born to do, at least when we were young children,” concludes Alison Gopnik, the Professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “For young children, quite literally, seeking explanations is as deeply rooted a drive as seeking food or water.” It is fundamental to human nature. However, only creative minds carefully preserve the sense of wonder and curiosity of a child throughout their lives. They are “child-like” at all ages. ‘Who, what, where, why, when, and how,’ they never cease to ask questions. “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” quips Albert Einstein, one of the most creative minds the world has ever seen, reiterating this requirement. Claude Levi-Stauss rightly concludes: “the scientist is not a person who gives the right answers; he is one who asks the right questions.” “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question,” observes Jonas Edward Salk, the American virologist, who discovered the first successful inactivated polio vaccine, supporting Levi-Stauss’s conclusion. Today is an age of information. Parents and teachers need to perceive andappreciate a critical paradigm shift that is in the making. The skill to ask right questions is far more important for new generation students than the skills of answering pre-defined questions. Answers to most of the questions are already present in the Internet. The www is the ocean of information for those, who are equipped with right questions. As Pablo Picasso, the world-renowned 20th century Spanish artist asserts: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Computers cannot equip you with suitable questions corresponding to the answers they contain. We need powerful questions to churn the ocean of information. The big data remains futile without suitable data-mining. It is therefore insufficient that students are rewarded only for having good answers at schools. They shall be better rewarded for asking good questions too. Our education system needs a complete overhaul. It needs adaption to address the requirements of the Age of Information. The definition of aneducated man also changes accordingly. It incorporates the skill of asking suitable questions more than becoming a walking encyclopedia. An educated man is one who has questions to which nobody has answers. Finally, as Francis Bacon has said: “Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.”


The art of asking questions


Questions are asked for different purposes and accordingly there are different ways of doing it. The art of asking questions defines a creative mind. Given below are some examples:


1. Open questions


Open questions are intended to bring people into conversation. It awakes interest in people to reveal what they truly think and feel. Closed questions,on the other hand, are asked to obtain single word answers, say: ‘yes’ or ‘no’. They may include some formal questions too, which do not require an answer at all. For example, to the formal question “How do you do?” the anticipated answer is “How do you do?” itself. However, an open question elicits elaborate answers. For example, the question: “What all things you like at your workplace?” generates more informal and elaborate answers. Open questions are used to build up relationships. People generally respond positively to open questions, building an ambient for open dialogue. Who likes to be lectured? Open questions allow others to be open to your points of view.


2. Funnel questions


Funnel questions are asked to gather further information. You may either narrow your funnel or broaden it. You get more and more specific or general, respectively. Deductive reasoning is used to narrow the funnel and inductive reasoning is used to broaden it. A series of questions may be needed to effect funneling. It is extremely useful in diffusing the heat of a debate. For example, you may use funnel questions to fathom the depth of the grievance of your child or student. This will not only distract them from their emotions, but will help you to identify a way to reassure them.


3. Probing questions


Probing questions are used for discovery. It is basically asking for further details. You may seek clarification, example, purpose, relevance, completeness or accuracy. Probing questions are powerful tools of learning new things. They shed misunderstandings. They bring clarity. They help you avoid jumping into conclusions, without proper information.


4. Leading questions


Leading questions lead the respondent to your way of thinking. In a democratic discussion, there generally emerge a number of options needing consensus. You may try to lead the group by giving riders. For example, if there are two options emerging in the discussion, you may indicate your preference for option 2 by asking: “Shall we approve Option 2?” after a detailed discussion on both options. Or, if there are a host of suggestions, you may ask: “Which would you prefer of Option 1 and Option 2?” This may effectively reduce the options into two. Leading questions are extremely useful, to develop consensus in a democratic discussion.


5. Rhetorical questions


Rhetorical questions are statements phrased in question form. They don’t require an answer. For example, you may ask your child: “Are your teachers not wonderful?” to promote the child’s appreciation for his/her teachers. The expected answer is an obvious “Yes”. Such questions are useful to manage, coach or motivate somebody. They help get people to reflect and to commit to courses of action that you’ve suggested. For example, you may ask your child: “Wouldn’t it be great, if you study further?” indicating it your wish.


6. Empowering questions


Many of us have beliefs which underestimate our true potential. Empowering questions challenge people to reconsider their limits and overcome barriers on the way. You may empower them so that they break their mental barriers using empowering questions. For example, you may challenge your child who is desperate after a lackluster performance in examination, “Are you sure that you have exhausted your options?” The obvious answer is a sure No.


Creativity Enhancing Questions


Questions have ability to pierce through the wellspring of creativity. They prime the creative pump. Let us list few examples of questions that would generate creative options:


1. Kipling’s Questions


According to the short poem of Rudyard Kipling, six universal questions that generate all our ideas are: What? Where? When? Who? Why? How? Asking these questions in a systematic way will generate large number of creative options.


2. Dumb questions


Dumb questions are blunt questions of the sort asked by children born out of a desire to understand, out of sheer curiosity. They are simple questions that probe the obvious, and simultaneously challenge and direct our thinking.George Bernard Shaw suggests: “No question is so difficult to answer as that for which the answer is obvious.” Blunt questions target the obvious answers.


3. Concentric questions


Concentric questions explore root cause of the problem at hand. The strategy is to ask the “Why” question five times in a raw. For example, imagine your child is not good at studies. You may ask:“Why?”“He cannot concentrate.”“Why does your child find it difficult to concentrate?”“He does not sleep properly at night.”“Why does your child not sleep properly at night?”“He goes to bed very late.”“Why does the child go to bed too late?”“We have a late dinner.”“Why you have a late dinner?”“We are used to it.”Just change your habit and let your child sleep well so that he concentrates well in class and performs well in academics

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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