January 25, 2021

How do I create something from nothing? I think it is by questioning.
-Amy Tan

If we were as good at diagnosing problems as we thought we were the world would be a very different place. Supply would meet market demand instantly and continuously, inequities would be alleviated in health, wealth and opportunity, and conflicts would be minimized to nothing more than more than mere annoyances. But, being human, none of this will likely happen anytime soon, even with the advent of big data and quantum computing.

We can however get vastly better at working together, solving common problems, and reducing the time and suffering caused by prolonged negotiations, poisoned relationships, and simple misunderstandings, simply by pausing to ask some fundamental questions.

There is a legal phrase called inquiry before assessment, sometimes referred to as inquiry before advocacy. To put it simply, it means that we need to ask questions, gather evidence, and objectively analyze such evidence prior to assessing and delivering a verdict. There is a short, but impactful book I recently read entitled “Wait, What?” by James Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. There is an even shorter video clip of his viral speech on the topic.

He suggests that there are five basic questions that can vastly improve our results and, most importantly, our relationships.

  • Wait, What?  This means you must pause to understand, to not let the flurry of activity or mountain of messages overwhelm what the other person or entity is suggesting.
  • I wonder why? I wonder If? I wonder why allows us to fully understand the underlying causes or condition, and I wonder if is that question that shows curiosity and opens us up to vast possibilities.
  • Couldn’t we at least…? This question allows for us to find the mutual ground we agree upon and is at the heart of good faith negotiation.
  • How can I help? Asked genuinely, this means that you care enough and have enough empathy for the other party to ask what would actually help. Ask disingenuously, and this leads to solving the wrong problem.
  • What truly matters to me, to us? This keeps us focused on the big picture and avoids us spending 80% of our time on the small issues. ​​​​

​​​This week, let’s pause to ask some of these questions. Let’s take the time to consider the other position, and not look past the data, or each other. As we recover, I would suggest keeping these questions in your pocket to help guide your team, your organization, and your community to a better future.

-Kenny McDonald