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Advice & News

September 9, 2019

10 ‘Beautiful’ Questions to Shift Your Thinking at Work


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Higher education professionals understand the power of questioning, whether it's questions asked among students to help them learn, or discussions with colleagues to solve problems. But what makes a good question?

"Any question that causes people to shift their thinking is a beautiful one," writes Warren Berger, author of "The Book of Beautiful Questions." "(They) remind you to slow down and think more, to broaden your perspective, to see past biases, creative blocks, and emotional reactions."

In a previous HigherEdJobs article, we offered 10 questions to help people at a career crossroads chosen from the more than 400 questions in Berger's book. For this article, we will offer 10 questions to help you perform better in your existing job, ranging from making a decision or creating something, to connecting to other people and being an effective leader.

10. What is my job?
This should be asked beyond your first day on the job because, as Berger notes, the nature of work is changing so rapidly that we must constantly ask this question. You may be reluctant to ask this question, as a sign of incompetence or challenging authority, but as Berger writes, "leaders are more apt to appreciate and reward questioning than to punish it." However, you must do your homework. Your question should be informed, and come from a place of curiosity and respect, so your question won't be perceived as a complaint.

9. How might I do my job better?
Seek advice from others and continuously explore better alternatives. Start with your supervisor. Berger offers several questions to ask your boss, particularly how you can make your boss's job easier, and it's important for managers and their subordinates to engage in these reciprocal conversations. But if you're a leader who would say, "Don't bring me questions, bring me answers," Berger claims that's not the way innovation works. "To encourage innovation, you must embrace questions and experiments as potential opportunities to improve or innovate," he writes. "As for the person who identifies a problem and raises a question about it -- the person has, at that point, already contributed something valuable."

8. What are my superpowers?
You might already have the solution to your workplace's problems, and you certainly have something valuable to contribute to your work. This comes from your strengths. Identifying your strengths puts you in a better position to make the most of what you already have going for you, Berger says. There are several methods for asking these "assets-based" questions, including daily reflection, but a good method is taking assessments like StrengthsFinder.

7. Would I rather be right or would I rather understand?
Connecting with other people and ideas requires "intellectual humility," defined as "a state of openness to new ideas, a willingness to be receptive to new sources of evidence." One way to test your intellectual humility is to ask if you'd rather be right or understand. Berger writes, "If you place too much importance on being right, it can put you in 'defense' mode and close off learning and understanding."

6. How do you figure out when to listen to other people and when to listen to yourself?
When you're not listening to others, you're either talking -- "Why am I talking?" should've made this list, too -- or listening to your thoughts. Here, Berger's advice is to be wary of feedback that is suggesting that you alter your vision but be receptive to feedback that improves upon the execution.

5. If I didn't come to work today, would things be worse?
It's good to ask yourself if you're making a difference or making a contribution. Strive not to climb the ladder, but to be the person who makes everyone around you better. That's how you become indispensable.

4. What can I do with what I have?
Whether you're frustrated with your institution's lack of resources or you need help starting a creative project, it can be better to begin the actual work, even if you must do it with a limited budget or knowledge. As quoted in Berger's book, Scott Sonenshein, author of "Stretch," said, asking "What can I do with what I have?" enables you to "bypass the paralyzing trap of waiting to get more in order to do more."

3. What if I put this together with that?
Colleges and universities are great places to exercise "connective inquiry," a term for looking at two separate ideas and connecting them in unusual ways. Berger pointed to the 2010 bestselling book, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," as an example, but with the varied academic departments and cross-functional areas on a campus, there are endless opportunities for new ideas through interdisciplinary collaboration.

2. Why do I strongly believe what I believe?
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arno Penzias credited his success to asking himself this "jugular question" every morning, constantly examining his assumptions. It's one of the questions that Berger provides to help people check their own biases and make decisions.

1. Will I do this?/How can I do that?
You may resolve to do something at work and declare, "I will do X." Citing research from the University of Illinois, Berger says if you really want to motivate yourself, you'll get better results if you frame it as a question. "Questions are more engaging than statements," Berger writes. "They invite you (or even challenge you) to think about potential solutions. They get your brain working right away on a problem." And they are less intimidating than resolutions.