How to start collaboration: the power of questions

A famous quote from Confucius reads: “the man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.” I’ve always liked that quote, but I think there’s even more to a question than just getting smarter.

Because for me, collaboration almost always starts with a question. I think I spend 80% of my time preparing for a session on formulating the right questions. Because a good question begs for an answer. Your brain can simply not ignore it. And thus you are activated to participate and collaborate.

Having people answer questions is not the only way to start an interaction. Having people formulate questions themselves is also a great way to activate them. So sometimes instead of me coming up with the questions I just let the participants themselves come up with questions.

Asking questions and kids

I actually came to the realization that formulating questions is just as powerful for starting collaboration and engagement through my kids. Especially with my 13-year-old son. I think many of you will recognize the passiveness of a teenager when you ask them how school was, or how things are in general. I always got one worded answers like: ‘fine’, ‘boring’, ‘good’, etc. At first I tried to come up with better, more intriguing questions. But I always failed.

Whereas in my professional life I’m quite successful in asking questions and getting meaningful answers in my personal life I was not at all. How was that possible I always wondered? Of course one of the big differences between my 13-year-old son and a participant in a session lies in the willingness to collaborate. My son, obviously is not willing.

So in our family we came up with a ‘game’ during dinner: you spin a bottle (or fork, or knife, or whatever is at hand) and whoever the bottle points to has to come up with a question for all the others to answer. It started out with questions like: what is your favorite color (from my 5-year-old)? Or: don’t you think I should get more allowance (from my 13-year-old)? But over time the questions got more intriguing and led us into deeper conversations about life and death, love, emotions and how to deal with them, etc. And my 13-year-old is now also engaged when someone else asks a question.

Meaningful collaboration almost always starts with a question…