Critical thinking via questions

Toddlers as they grow and try to understand the world around them, begin to ask incessant and sometimes embarrassing questions on how things work. In early childhood these questions, are meant to help them comprehend their ecosystem. As they grow older and develop logic and reasoning, they begin to question the process and practices of the ecosystem. Asking questions, to learn, understand and find solutions is one of our most fundamental needs.

Questions help us think critically or make a reasoned judgement which then, drives our actions. It also helps develop cognitive thinking i.e. make the connections to what we know and apply those into understanding facts thus aiding problem solving.  In the high-tech industry, where there is a deluge of information and complex problems, being able to think critically to solve problems is a desirable behavioural trait to have.

For example, managers interact with a wide variety of stakeholders. They act as a conduit between the client, leadership and the project team. An ability to manage expectations, grasp complexities of business problem and then arriving at a solution whist working with a team, requires a high degree of cognitive thinking. Questions aid in defining tasks, express problems and delineate issues.

Since this is such a desirable trait to have, can we be trained to exhibit this ability? Socrates, one of the most profound thinkers came out with a questioning mechanism as a process of learning.  The art of questioning included analysis of the problems and its implications while exploring plausibility of things. Combining the Socratic questions in the following manner helps define problem statements systematically.

  1. Questions for clarifications: Who is responsible for this task?
  2. Questions that probe assumptions: Do we actually have to integrate this module with the external patch that came in?
  3. Questions that probe reason and evidence: Why are we bringing out this module now, if there is already an easier way for customers to access the information?
  4. Questions about viewpoints and perspectives: Do you think we should use Ruby on rails?
  5. Questions that probe implications and consequences: If we release this module, there will be a downtime of 2 days, will this be acceptable?
  6. Question about the Question: It would be good to understand, why you believe customers won’t have an issue with this downtime.

Now, as much as asking questions is a desirable behaviour, the manner in which it is sought is equally important. Given that critical thinking is an important learning tool, it’s essential to know how to ask questions.

  • Ask open ended questions: Allows both you and the responded to have a conversation
  • Don’t interrupt: Don’t jump into counter or question the question, wait till the speaker has completed.
  • Listen to the speaker: Most of the time, we already have a list of questions based on assumptions but don’t bother to alter those questions on the responses or content of the speaker. So first listen to the speaker before responding.
  • Be specific: Asking questions that are specific to the task on hand, rather than vague assumptions signify intent of the questioner.

To enable decision-making that matters, it’s important that you ask the right question at the right time.

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