A conversation with Warren Berger, Innovation Speaker and Author of The Book Of Beautiful Questions and A More Beautiful Questions.

“Neil Postman, and Neil postman said, “Children enter school as question marks and they leave and as periods.” And I love that, and I think what he’s saying is, they’re coming in full of wonder and then they’re coming out less full of wonder.  So I felt like I want to tackle this issue in some way, and so what I’ve been doing is going around to schools and just talk about some things maybe that could be done to create an environment where children are going to be more likely to raise their hand with a question. And it’s interesting, I mean, it’s the same for adults I think as it is for kids, the culture that’s needed is all about safety first. It’s got to be safe for kids to ask a question. So how do you build that safety? Well, the first thing you do, is you put the message out there, very strongly, that questions are wanted. And then you show that they’re appreciated. However you convey that message, it could just be verbally, or it could be through things you put on the wall or whatever. You’re sending that very strong that this is a questioning safe place. And in fact, more than questioning safe, we want questions, they’re encouraged, they help us.” –Warren Berger

In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Warren Berger about his journey becoming a “Questionologist”.  He shares why he thinks learning to ask better questions is a science and an art, why kids are such great questioners, and why we lose the incentive to question as we age. We then discuss tips to develop cultures of inquiry in your personal and professional lives. Listen in to learn the differences between why, what if, and how might we questions.  

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Show Highlights

[1:50] How Warren Got His Start Working As A Questionologist

[9:50] Why Teachers Need To Stop Thinking Of Themselves as [answerers[

[15:50] Practical Tips For Developing Cultures Of Inquiry

[28:30] The Curse Of Knowledge 

[36:40] The Future Of Questionology

Warren on LinkedIn

Warrens Speaker Site

Warrens General Site

About the Guest

WARREN BERGER developed his inquiry skills as a journalist for The New York Times but first declared himself a “questionologist” with the publication of his best-selling book, A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION. The book shows that questioning has been the starting point of everything from the cell phone, to Netflix, to the International Red Cross. In the book, Berger introduces an original framework (the “Why/What If/How” cycle of inquiry) that can be applied to challenges and problems. 

A More Beautiful Question has been embraced by the NASA space program, the U.S. Army, National Science Foundation, and companies such as Starbucks, Chanel, Pfizer, Microsoft, Disney, and Pepsi, as well as by major universities around the country. Mr. Berger has conducted questioning workshops at NASA, Campbell Soup Company, and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and he designed and hosted a company-wide employee-training program on questioning for PepsiCo. He also regularly visits elementary and high schools around the country, urging teachers to try to encourage more questioning in the classroom.

In the fall of 2018, Berger released a follow-up book on questioning, THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead. In 2020, he published BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM, which offers strategies and exercises that can help teachers to inspire more curiosity and inquiry among their students. Overall, Berger has authored or co-authored 10 books (including the acclaimed GLIMMER, one of the first books on “design thinking”). He has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, CNN, and NBC’s Today Show, and he contributes regularly to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Psychology Today, where he writes the “Questionologist” column.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

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Full Transcript

Douglas:  Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose, to control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for session sometime you can join our weekly Control the Room Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques, so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real-time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab.

If you’d like to learn more about my new book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings quick start guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at voltagecontrol.com/magical-meetings-quick-guide. Today I’m with Warren Berger, author of The Book of Beautiful Questions, who specializes in teaching business leaders, educators, and all sorts of other people about the art and science of questioning. Welcome to the show, Warren. Thank you.

Warren:  Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Douglas:  Oh, it’s so good to have you, big fan of the book. And in fact it was my holiday book last year that I gave out to my team and everyone I love, and everyone was really thrilled by it.

Warren:  Thank you for spreading it around, that’s music to the ears of any author. And that’s how books grow, right, is that people passing them around and it’s great to hear.

Douglas:  Absolutely. So to get started here, I’d love to hear about how you got your start in questioning questions.

Warren:  Yeah, well, in a way, it was a natural thing because I was a journalist. I mean, I guess I still am, I don’t know, but I was a practicing journalist for many years for newspapers and magazines, New York Times and some other places. So as a journalist, I was tools of the trade, we’re using asking questions. And so, I didn’t really think about it that much. It was something I had to get better at in order to do my job. But eventually I started to think about it as a separate discipline and something I should pay attention to. And the interesting thing, Douglas, is that, even people who use questioning every day, don’t tend to think of it as a discipline, or a thing that they pay attention to, or a thing that they should get better at. And journalists are a perfect example. I went to journalism school and I don’t remember a single course that was about questioning, even though this was a skill that I was going to be using every day for the rest of my journalism career.

So that’s typical of the way questioning is understudied, under researched and just doesn’t get enough attention paid to it. So at some point, I said, “Well, why isn’t someone focusing in on questioning as a science and an art.” And that’s when I started calling myself a questionologist. And I like to say that I asked myself, “What if I just declared myself a questionologist?” And then I did so, and I did it in the New York Times and no one questioned it, which was a good sign. So it became a thing that I now say, and I hang out my shingle as questionologist, and then companies started coming to me and saying, “Yeah, we’re interested in questioning. We don’t quite know why or how, we’re interested, but we know it’s important and we know we need to do something with it.”

So that’s led to where I am now, which is writing books about it. I’ve done three books on it and then just going around and doing talks and then sometimes even doing workshops, like training workshops, which I did like at the NASA Space Center, just teaching people some basic question formulation techniques.

Douglas:  It makes me think about this idea of teaching the art questioning. And when I pondered that, as you were speaking, it made me think about the fact that when we’re kids we’re really good at asking questions, and maybe this is why we assume we’re good at questions, and we don’t need to learn how to ask questions. And there seems to be a shift from when we were kids and when we become adults as to how we change the way we question. And I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this.

Warren:  Yeah. It’s a big shift. It’s a big phenomenon. So I’ve gotten really deep as you could imagine into the kids and questioning piece of all this. And what is the significance of that? Where does it come from? What does it mean? And so, one of the interesting pieces of research I found was, that a four-year-old girl, even more than a boy, if that age, a four-year-old girl is like the ultimate questioning machine. So a four-year-old girl is asking like 300 questions a day and it’s just fascinating. And then the four-year-old boy is not far behind, he’s probably asking 250 questions a day. So you’re a questioning machine at that age, and I think the reasons why are that, there’s nothing stopping your questions. You’re full of curiosity, you’re going out into the world for the first time, everything is new, everything is interesting, everything is fascinating, and at the same time, you’re not worried about necessarily impressing people with your knowledge.

So you are willing to ask anything, you’re willing to just throw questions out there, a young kid doesn’t ever stop and think, “Gee, is this a stupid question? Should I hold back this question?” They don’t do it, they just ask. So and then what happens is, when they get to school, some of these real-world pressures start to go to work on them. And the schooling system starts to go to work on them. And you have an education system that is more geared to answers, memorizing answers, asking questions is not seen as particularly important. You never get rewarded for a good question, if you’re a student, right? You raise your hand, you ask a really good question, it’s not like, “Okay, because of that question, you’re getting extra points.” That doesn’t happen. So I think kids pick up pretty early that the reward is knowing the answer, not asking the question. And then the other thing that kicks in, is social pressure, you start to become aware of your peers and what they think of you.

And then all of a sudden, you’re going to start thinking, “Well, gee, if I ask a question and the other kids already know the answer, they’re going to think I’m stupid. So I better not ask.” And so all these things go to work on us. And so, if you look at the limited research that’s been done on this, you see the questioning just falls off a cliff. As kids go through school, it just declines rapidly from the time they enter school until up through high school. So it’s an interesting phenomenon, and then I think in some ways, it continues in the workplace because we get into the workplace and you have those same pressures. You have the sense that, answers are what matter here, don’t bring me a question unless you also have an answer. I hear lots of CEOs say that, they say that very proudly like, “That’s what I do. I say to people, “Don’t bring me a question unless you bring me an answer.”

And I say to them, “That’s wrong. Don’t say that, you want them to bring you questions that they don’t have an answer to.” Maybe because there may be an innovation there. There may be some something to complete opens up new thinking and new ground and don’t expect them to have the answer already, your company has to do that. So anyway, the same pressures exist in the workplace that exist in the classroom of, “We don’t have time for questions all of that stuff.” People being afraid that their co-workers will think they’re not smart, people being afraid that if they ask their supervisor a question, he’s going to feel threatened, all kinds of stuff like that. So there’s all these forces that work against questioning in the workplace. And it’s just a continuation of what was happening as we were growing up.

Douglas:  As you talk about the, don’t bring me a question or don’t bring me a problem without an answer or solution kind of phenomenon, it makes me think of the inefficiencies of the hierarchical organization structure. In General McChrystal, in Team of Teams talked about more distributed teams that are a little more autonomous on the edges. So then the edges can’t ask questions and answer them themselves, and they’re empowered because it’s inefficient. If everyone’s bringing all these questions up and one person has to hold all that, that’s a lot, right?

Warren:  Exactly.

Douglas:  And maybe that’s also part of why the education system is somewhat struggling with that too because if the kids are all asking questions to their parents, that ratio is manageable. But if it’s one teacher to like 20, 30 students having to answer all those questions, that’s a lot, right?

Warren:  Well, I think one of the issues there is you have to stop if you’re the teacher, or the leader, or whoever you are that is receiving those questions, you have to stop thinking of yourself as the answerer, it’s not up to you to answer all those questions. What you can do, is you can take those questions, you can always be the facilitator of those questions that take them from the individual and distribute them to the group. So take them and say, “Okay, that’s a great question. Let’s all think about it.” And parents can do that too, teachers can do it, if your kid asks you a question, you don’t have to know the answer, all you have to do is say, “That’s a great question, and what do you think we should do to explore it? Where do you think we should look first?” And then, next thing you’re going on a journey of inquiry with your child or your student. So I think that’s really important, don’t get away from the idea that you have to have the answers.

This is important for leadership in general today. I think leaders have to get away from that model, “I’m the answer guy, everybody comes to me because I know everything.” You’re going to get into trouble with that approach, it doesn’t work in today’s world. First of all, there’s just too much to know, I don’t care how smart you are, there’s too much to know. So if you’re going to pose as the person who knows it all, you’re going to be in trouble. You’re going to be revealed pretty quickly, and also it’s not motivational to your people for you to say, “I’m the guy who knows everything.” I mean, you want to convey to them that we’re all on a journey together. We’re all on a journey of inquiry together and your questions are valuable, my questions are valuable, we’re explore them together. And that’s more the attitude than you are the lower-level person, you have a question, you bring it to me, I’ll answer it.

Douglas:  I love this, what do you think we should do? It’s such a fun question to pose to the team because quite often they probably have an idea and it was so liberating as a young leader because when I first started using that question, because I found that not only did it free me from that moment of having to have the answer, it sent the signal that they were allowed, they had urgency to solve their questions. So then they brought less questions to me because they knew that I might say, “What do you think we should do then? And maybe-“

Warren:  Exactly. Right. Yeah. Well, do the author, Michael Bungay Stanier, who’s really good leadership coach guy? He’s great, but he told me, he even uses that when he gives speeches and it was a great lesson for me. You give a speech somewhere, right? And at the end of the speech people have questions, and your natural reaction as the speaker is to try to answer each and every question. And he said, “No, don’t do that.” He said like, “At least with some of the questions, throw it back out to the audience.” You get a question from somebody and you say, “That’s a great question. Has anybody else thought about that? What do people think about that question? Or does anyone have any thoughts?” And what you do is, you open up the conversation to the whole group and it also takes a lot of pressure off you. You don’t have to have the answer to single question that comes in.

So I think it’s such an important dynamic for leaders, teachers, people who run meetings, anybody, is get out of that mode of feeling like you’re the answer person and everyone comes to you. You got to give them a perfect answer to every question they have.

Douglas:  That’s a really awesome, I can definitely say it works really well from a public speaking standpoint because people appreciate the humility. It makes you more likable. And what a great way to harvest more ideas for future talks and future conversations. It’s so good.

Warren:  A lot of times there’re ideas out there that you have no idea of and you got to find a way to bring them to the surface. Yeah.

Douglas:  I would say it’s pretty core to facilitation as well. When people don’t understand what facilitation is, we often talk about, we don’t bring the answers, we extract the answers.

Warren:  Right. Exactly.

Douglas:  Yeah. And so this really ties to something you were telling me about in the pre-show chat, which is the work you’re doing now in your current book, around working with educators and students and this idea of creating a culture of inquiry. Yes thank.

Warren:  Culture of inquiry. Yeah. So basically, in my first book, A More Beautiful Question. I did have a section that talked about cultures of inquiry. Are there things you can do create an environment where people feel more comfortable asking questions? And then as I started to get interested in education, because as I mentioned earlier, there’s a huge issue, right? It’s like, if kids are going into school as questioners, I’m going to use a quote here because I love this quote, was by this guy, he was a great writer on education years ago, he’s no longer with us, but his name was Neil Postman, and Neil postman said, “Children enter school as question marks and they leave and as periods.” And I love that, and I think what he’s saying is, they’re coming in full of wonder and then they’re coming out less full of wonder.

So I felt like I want to tackle this issue in some way, and so what I’ve been doing is going around to schools and just talk about some things maybe that could be done to create an environment where children are going to be more likely to raise their hand with a question. And it’s interesting, I mean, it’s the same for adults I think as it is for kids, the culture that’s needed is all about safety first. It’s got to be safe for kids to ask a question. So how do you build that safety? Well, the first thing you do, is you put the message out there, very strongly, that questions are wanted. And then you show that they’re appreciated. However you convey that message, it could just be verbally, or it could be through things you put on the wall or whatever. You’re sending that very strong that this is a questioning safe place. And in fact, more than questioning safe, we want questions, they’re encouraged, they help us.

So I think you’ve got to get that message out there really strongly, then you’ve got to figure out ways to celebrate questions as they’re asked. So it could be, “We’re going to have a bulletin board that’s going to have all the great questions that were asked that week,” whatever it is. You figure out some reward for questions and some way to recognize questions because a lot of times questions just disappear. They come up, they’re gone, nobody remembers them. So you got to immortalize them a little bit, and then there’re things you can do in a question in classroom, and I would think it’s probably true in a workplace too, that just stimulate curiosity. One teacher that I talk to, talked about the importance of withholding information, you can never underestimate the importance of withholding information when you want people to be curious. That is, think of what someone like a great film director does, they just give you a little hint of something, but they don’t tell you or the answer.

And then that fires your curiosity, “Oh, what does that mean? The director just showed a suitcase under the table. Wonder what that means.” That’s curiosity, that’s how you trigger curiosity. And so I’ve seen teachers do that, they bring objects into the classroom, interesting things. They don’t necessarily explain what they are, they invite the kids to wonder about it and ask about it. And so there are things like that you can do to just provoke curiosity. And then the another thing you can do, is you can create exercises and ways for people to form groups and just formulate lots of questions within a group. There’s a whole exercise that I do sometimes when I go to companies, that’s called question storming, and it’s basically just, you take a topic, put people in groups, and all they’re allowed to do is formulate questions on that. They can’t come up with ideas, no answers wanted, no ideas, just questions. What it does is it works that questioning muscle that gets you in the habit of formulating lots and lots and lots of questions.

And then, there’re parts of the exercise where you work on your questions. You say, “Okay, we’re going to take all these closed questions and make them open questions and vice versa. We’re going to take the open-ended questions and make them closed.” You do all kinds of stuff like that, that gets you working on questions, gets you used to the language of questions and just the habit of working with questions. So that’s basically, what I’m focused on now, is doing that in a classroom, but it all relates just as much to the work environment and everything you say about a classroom, you could also about a company environment.


So one thing you mentioned in there, was this notion of immortalizing questions and I found that really fascinating and intriguing. I’m wondering if you have any examples of how people immortalize their questions.

Warren:  Yeah, really just by putting them on the wall, that’s a thing you do. There’s one company that I worked with, that started putting questions that were coming up from people, posting them and getting people to think about them. But if you really want to take it to the max, what you can do is you can get rid of your mission statement and turn it into a mission question. So I say that to companies sometime think about it, think about doing that, and not only your overall mission statement, but maybe within groups in the company. There might be a goal statement or an objective statement for this group or that group, think about taking all that stuff and turn it into questions. The reason you would want to do that is because questions are more engaging and more empowering than statements are, don’t forget the statement. When you put something out as a statement, it’s coming from somebody else and it’s being sort of put on people, right?

And they either agree with that statement or they don’t, they either care about that statement or they don’t, they may feel like, “Well, what do I do with this statement?” Okay, so the statement is, our company is changing the world through robotics. All right, great. What do I do with that? So it doesn’t give people much participation, however, if you simply turn that into a question and you take that statement of, we change the world through robotics into, how might we change the world through robotics? If you’re using that kind of language, it fires the imagination, it invites people to be part of the mission. You basically saying, “This is an unanswered question. This is a challenge we have not met. It is a mission we’re on. And would you like to join us? Would you like to be part of answering this question?” And you just find that people respond much better to that, it gives them a sense of purpose and it gives them a sense of belonging. And so, basically yeah, that’s part of my big thing.

Now I say, “Turn your mission statements into mission questions.” By the way, on a personal level, turn your new year’s resolutions into questions, same phenomenon at work. A question is more engaging, so don’t say, “I’m going to lose £10 pounds.” Say, “How might I lose £10 pounds this year? It’ll get your mind working more on it. It’ll get more ideas flowing. And there’s actually been science that bear that out, there have been studies that say, “We’re more likely to act on a question than we are on a statement.” So this is what I would say to people is definitely use questions in that way. Use them in place of state when you can.

Douglas:  That’s really cool. I was actually going to ask you about the framing of a question for the purpose of a mission statement or a resolution. And I was thinking about the classic, how might we questions from design thinking? It seemed like a good drop in and those are examples. Are there any other things that consider when folks are framing those kinds of questions?

Warren:  Yeah. Well, I mean, a lot of people use what if questions, what if we could find a way to blow? And the difference between how might we, and what if questions or how might we, to me is a little more actionable. So if you ask, what if, now see there’s a whole cycle in my book I talked about why, and then what if, and then how, so there’s three types of questions. There’s more than that, but for innovation and business purposes, you could boil it down to those three types of questions as being the cycle of how we solve problems, deal with change, do innovation and all that, and they’re different. So when we’re asking why, we’re at the front end of the process, and we’re trying to understand, we’re saying, “Well, why does this problem exist? Why is it an issue? Why should we care? Why should we do anything about it?” So you’re trying to get your brain around the understanding.

And then when you move to what if, now you’re getting into more of the imaginative, “Okay, we understand there’s a challenge, what if we tried this? What if we tried that?” You’re now brainstorming now. And then when you get to how, it’s more practical, “Okay, how are we going to do it? How much is it going to cost? How and so forth.” So how is where the action is. And the reason I like, how might we is, I like the idea that you’re doing an actionable, you’re doing a question that’s because of that word might, it’s very open, it’s open to all possibilities. We might do this, we might do that, but it’s also got how in there, so it’s like practical and actionable. So I really like framing questions with how might we at that stage when you’re creating a mission question, now when you’re brainstorming and trying to come up with ideas, then what if is great, because it’s a totally open.

What if questions shift reality? It’s like, “What if the world wasn’t the way it is or whatever?” You can ask questions like that. What if we had unlimited funds to do this? Or what if we only had a dollar and we had to create this new product?” So you can use what if to like shift reality and that’s really valuable at the brainstorming stage, but when you get to trying to really do something and motivate people, then I think, how might we is really good.

Douglas:  Yeah. That’s cool. It’s really fascinating to me because how might we, seems a bit more committed even though the might is there that softens it a little bit where like, “There’s a little bit of flexibility here, but we’re moving of that commitment zone.”

Warren:  It’s what we’re on. It’s the mission we’re on. And I think it’s really good. And what I like about how might we is yeah, it gives you direction and purpose, but you can always change it because it’s a how might we question, you can always say, “It can change over time.” It could start out, “How might we do da da, da, da, da?” And then over time you do, “Well, no, really the question should be, how might we do this other thing instead?” And then what I love, Douglas, is the idea that you could take this, how might we question and you can build on it, right. So I really love a how might we question, it has like five parts to it.

So it says like, “How might we find a way to do X while also keeping in mind that we have to do Y and at the same time, be conscious of the effects of Z?” So all of a sudden you create this big multi-part, how might we question that encompasses all the challenges and problems you face. So it’s like a wicked question, right? And it’s got everything, everything has been considered in there and put into the question. And then that becomes the question that you pursue. That becomes the question you can pursue over time because it’s well-thought-out, it’s well-constructed, it’s taken everything into consideration.

Douglas:  That reminds me of in the world of OKRs, and I think metrics in general, there’s this risk of, if you’re focused on a metric then you can optimize that metric to the detriment of other metrics. And so it can often be helpful to pair up metrics to make sure we’re not-

Warren:  I think you can do that just by using those phrases, right? Adding on phrases to it, you can say, “This is a question that has four parts. And if we only do two parts, it’s not going to work because then the third and fourth part are going to kill us.” And so you could take a lot of time formulating that question, because it requires a lot of thought and a lot of research to uncover, what are the problems? What are the challenges? What’s going to be the effect, if we do this? What is going to be the side effect? And so once you figure that out, it becomes part of the question and you now anticipate it as part of the question. And now you end up with this really powerful question that has considered everything. And if you can answer that question, then you’re in good shape. It may take a long time and you may never answer it.

Douglas:  So the what if question, anchors back into something that I wrote down that I wanted to come back to around a statement you made when you were discussing the culture of inquiry. And that was this notion of stimulating curiosity, and that there was one teacher that would bring in an object and not say much about it and getting the student to wonder, was what you said. And it struck me, this idea of wonderment, is something that’s pretty elusive as adults, but children often find wonderment much quicker. And I believe that’s also tied with this ability to ask questions, because if we can have moments of wonderment or just to be able to wonder about things, I think it’s a little bit of the curse of knowledge, right? The more we know, the less we’re able to think about things from the beginner’s mindset or think about what if things were different. Of course, they’re not different, this is the way it works.

Warren:  Right, absolutely. And so, what you are trying to overcome there is the curse of knowledge, right? You’re trying to overcome the idea that we all think we know more than we do, and particularly when it comes to our jobs. I mean, we think we know our jobs so back and forth, inside out, upside down, that there’s nothing that can surprise us anymore. And it’s usually not true, right? The reason we feel that way is because we’ve gotten used to doing things a certain way, looking at things a certain way. We’ve gotten used to certain assumptions that we make, and so we feel like, “Well, we’ve covered that already,” but the reality is you, number one, we might have been wrong to start with. But number two, even if we were right, and we knew everything about this job, it changes constantly. So there’s no way we could be right about everything and know everything today based on what we were doing five years ago. And it’s ridiculous, right? Because everything has changed every way of doing things.

Almost every assumption has been overturned because of technology or whatever, so many things are different that, that’s where the curse of knowledge really hurts you because you’re thinking that, you know stuff, and you don’t know. You’re in a bubble based on what you learned 10 years ago. And so it’s a really big challenge for people to break that bubble and questioning it’s one of the key ways you do it, and curiosity is one of the key ways you do it. And just being willing to say, “I know I have my way that I was trained to do something, but does that still make sense? What are the alternatives to that?” What if I look at this from a different perspective, what would a kid entering the field now, how would they look at it? How would someone from another planet look at it?

So, I mean, you have to embrace these other perspectives or try to imagine other perspectives, try to find ways to look at a familiar thing as if you’re seeing it for the first time. These are all techniques that we can learn from a child. This is where the child is the master questioner because the child knows how to do all this stuff. The child knows how to see things with a fresh eye without assumptions. And we all have to get better at that if we’re going to be good questioners, the way the four-year-old child, five-year-old child is.

Douglas:  Yeah. It reminds me of this other thing we were talking about in the pre-show chat around the work you’re doing to help coach and train people on how to ask questions in a way that might push people out of their comfort zone. Might encourage them to think a little different and push past this curse of knowledge but in a way that’s not threatening, doesn’t rattle them, doesn’t make them feel inferior or attacked. And I think that’s a really fascinating work and love to hear a little bit more about how you’re approaching that, what advice you have.

Warren:  Yeah. I think questioning is a really interesting field in terms of… Before I was talking about how motivating it is and for instance, if you replace the mission statement with a mission question, it’s so motivating and inviting, but there’s a flip side to questioning, which is, it can be very confrontational and it can be the opposite of inviting. It can be off-putting. And so the challenge is figuring out which types of questions fall into which of those categories? And why does a question go off track? Why is it that a question you might think it’s going to inspire people and instead it puts them on the defensive? And so it’s one of the things I’m looking at, what I can tell you is there’s no precise science on it, it has a lot to do with tone. The tone you use when you’re asking questions, it has to do with some of the wording you use, and maybe more than anything, it has to do with your own intentions when you’re asking questions.

Your own motivations, your own agenda, if you will, or lack of an agenda, the less of an agenda you have, the better probably. So I think, for example, you can imagine a leader coming in and saying to someone, and they see that somebody has their own method of doing something and they come up to that person and say, “Why are you doing it that way?” Well, there’s a good chance that when they ask that with that particular tone that way, the person’s going to freeze and be like, “Oh boy, I’m in trouble now, this sounds like a criticism to me.” And so this is what happens a lot, is that, we’re too direct, we’re too blunt in our questions. And sometimes we’re really using the questions almost as like a criticism, right, it’s like a cover for criticizing someone like, “What were you thinking when you did that?” We all know that when someone asks that in that tone, they’re not really curious what we were thinking. They’re like, “What, are you an idiot?” That’s what they’re really asking.

So I think it’s all about how you phrase the questions to the tone you use when you ask them and what your motivation is? Are you really trying to learn something from them? Or are you going in assuming that you know, and you’re really just using the question as a way to do judgment in a veiled way. So that’s really, really important stuff and I think it can be really simple the ways you get around this, go back to that example of the boss who barked at someone, “Why are you doing it that way?” All the boss has to do is just change the wording up a little bit and say, “I’m curious about something, I noticed you have a different approach and I’m wondering how you came up with that and why that works for you?”

If you want to really soften the question, you can then add even a rationale on the end of it. So you can say, “Oh, I’m wondering, well, why do you take that approach? And the reason I ask is, because I’ve had the same problem myself, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it differently.” So not only are you preparing them with curiosity up front, but at the end you’re giving them a rationale. And you’re saying, “Just in case you’re wondering, here’s why I’m asking the question. It’s all for good reasons, no judgment, no criticism, I’m trying to learn something here.” And so using that kind of approach and language, you can soften, what would otherwise might be seen as a confrontational judgmental question.

Douglas:  It reminds me of how sarcasm can be used too in questions, right? It’s like, “How’s that working out for you?”

Warren:  Yeah, exactly. People use questions to do all kinds of stuff like that, like sarcasm, if you’re doing it in a joking way with your coworker, that’s fine, but if you’re a leader and you’re doing that for people under you, or working for you, that’s not good. That’s going to hurt them, that’s going to shatter their confidence, and so you really need to be careful about that kind of stuff. And I think you want to use questioning as a leader, and I’m talking about leaders of a group, not necessarily running the whole company, but just leaders of your team. You want to use questioning to kind of build confidence, to inspire and to get the most sharing of ideas out there.

Douglas:  Excellent. Well, I wanted to also just have a moment here to look at where you think this work is headed in the future. I know you’re working with teachers in the education space, thinking about these cultures of inquiry. What’s next for you? Where do you think this goes in the next five, 10 years?

Warren:  I think it’s growing, more and more organizations of all kinds are embracing this mindset. One of the most obvious ways I know that there’s a questioning thing in the air, is the commercials. I’m starting to see so many commercials that have question everything or ask the right questions. All of a sudden, it’s like they knew it’s the mantra, so I think it’s gotten out there into the circulation, into the zeitgeist. And I think it’s spreading, so where does it go from here? I think it has to go from more than a buzzword to a practice and that’s the real challenge. It’s like, we can all talk about it and we can all say, “Yeah, we want to have a more of a culture of inquiry, we want people to feel free to ask questions, we want them to use their imagination. We want this, we want that.” But the question is, how do we make it a reality? And that’s the big step that’s involved, it requires commitment, it requires a time commitment, resources, effort, experimentation and failure, and then more experimentation till you figure out what works.

So I think that’s going on now. And I think that will be going on more and more in the future with progressive-minded companies and organizations that really want to embrace the new and embrace change. I think you’ll see them trying a lot of approaches around questioning and trying to figure out what works, but it’s all being done from scratch, because like I said at the beginning, I think this has not been studied. This questioning thing, for some reason we thought it wasn’t important, we thought it was obvious, right? It’s like breathing, everyone knows how to ask questions. So we didn’t bother to really figure out like how it works, how to encourage it, how to teach it, how to train it, how to foster it, how to make questions better, what’s a good question versus a bad question? We didn’t figure out any of that stuff and we’re figuring it out now as we go.

And that’s where I’m trying to do whatever I can, any information I have, I put it into the mainstream and I try to say, “Hey, this is one thing we know.” And so then we try to spread it that way.

Douglas:  And what is your favorite question?

Warren:  Oh, gosh, well, let’s see. I mean, for a while, I really liked the question, it’s gotten a little played out now, but I used to love that question, that was a favorite in Silicon Valley like, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I really like that question, it was popularized by someone, I remember someone in Silicon Valley, well, it was originally some preacher said it decades ago, and it became popular on the preacher’s circuit and then Silicon Valley pick up on it and became an innovation question. But it’s an interesting question like, “What would you attempt to do if there was no fear of failure? If anything was possible, what would you attempt to do?” And I like it because not only is it a good question in itself, but it’s a type of question that I like, and I like questions where you remove the constraints and then you formulate a question without constraints.

I also like questions the opposite of that, is where you put constraints on. So I think I gave an example earlier, an example of removing constraints would be, “How would we develop this product if we had all the money in the world, if it was unlimited?” And then an example of putting the opposite, putting constraints, “What would we do if we had no budget at all? What would we do if we only had a dollar to work with?” So I love it when it put constraints on or take them off and then ask, what if? Because what it does is, it allows your mind to work in an alternate reality, and when you’re working in that alternate reality, you might come up with great ideas. At some point, you got to come back to reality, there is failure, there are budgets, but you can sometimes bring the ideas back from that alternate reality and then adapt them to reality.

You go to work on them and you say, “Okay, there are realistic issues, so how would that idea work in the real world?” And it’s amazing how many times a great idea can come out of that exercise, it’s really just about using questions to free your imagination, and see things differently. So those are the kinds of questions I really like, I love those what if questions where you play around with reality and you play around with constraints.

Douglas:  Awesome. I love them. I want to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought. As we wrap up today.

Warren:  Final thought would be, it’s lonely out here for the questionologist. So I invite people to be questionologists, go to my website amorebeautifulquestion.com there’re tons of stuff on there. There’re studies, there’re articles, there’re all kinds of stuff about that can give you a crash course on questioning, right? And then if you like that stuff, if this appeals to you, if you’re a natural questioner and you’re interested in all this stuff, make this part of your niche, make this part of who you are, make this say, “I’m someone who’s really into questioning.” And the reason why, is because questions do this and they do that. And by the way, did you know there’s this type of question and that type of question. So I would say, make it your thing, make it your own and make it something you can share with other people and make it a part of your life.

Douglas:  Awesome. And then also, I think everyone should check out the books. They’re really great, available on Amazon, they’re well written, full of great advice.

Warren:  Yeah. There’s a first book called A More Beautiful Question, that’s the basic where I lay out my whole theory and philosophy. And then there’s a more specialized book called The Book of Beautiful Questions where I focused in on four specific areas and how questioning is useful in those areas. One being leadership, another being just relationships, another being creativity, and then the fourth one, let’s see what’s the fourth one is, oh, decision making. We all have to make decisions in how to use questioning to make better decisions. So one is, I would say The Book of Beautiful Questions, a little more focused on those areas, if you’re interested in those areas, the other is more like the general philosophy about question.

Douglas:  Very good, well, thank you so much for joining me today and it’s been a pleasure chatting. I hope we get to do it again sometime.

Warren:  Yeah. Great Douglas, thanks. And thank you for asking great questions and I really enjoy doing it.

Douglas:  Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe, to receive updates when new episodes are released, and if you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.