Home » How to Ask Better Questions: Mike Vaughan at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

How to Ask Better Questions: Mike Vaughan at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

Mike Vaughan at TEDxMileHigh

Mike Vaughan – TRANSCRIPT

So, I’ve been thinking about thinking for well over 20 years, and I think I have more questions than I do answers. Now, I’d like to share some of those questions with you today.

On my journey, I’ve been doing a lot of research and in 2009, I ran across this report that just really caught my attention. In this report – it’s from the company called the Millennium Project – and this organization consists of well over 500 scientists, researchers, academics, and business people from over 50 different countries. This report is called the State of the Future Report, and they outlined the 15 global challenges facing humanity. So the things you would expect to see: clean water, population growth, energy were all on the list. It was number 9 that caught my attention.

Number 9: the capacity to decide. In other words, decision-making made it on a list of the global challenges facing humanity. Why is this the case? Why is decision-making becoming more challenging, with all the information, technology, and tools that we have available to us? Why is decision making on this list? Well, about 10 years ago, we created this model. It’s very simple, but I think it does a good job in explaining both the problem as well as the opportunity. What we’re finding is that most training teaches people what to think, that is, it gives them the processes, the procedures, the methodologies, and the information they need to perform a task. This is very important, because we all need a solid foundation.

However, what to think is a lot like fast food: it’s convenient, it’s fast, it’s prepackaged, and oftentimes, it’s overly processed in the form of regurgitated ideas and opinions that do very little to contribute to our deeper understanding of the world. Mass media understands this, politicians certainly understand this, and I believe schools know this. Take for example news. They repeat the same message over and over and over until we believe it.

Politicians craft 4 or 5 bullet points and repeat those over and over. Schools: they package content, chunk it, and sequence it, and they give us a test to see if we could remember any of it. This begs the question then: why are we surprised when we find people that are not as creative, innovative, and passionate as they could be? This is where the opportunity comes in. We have to shift our thinking. That is, in addition to teaching people what to think, we also need to educate them on how to think.

So, for example, if I teach you what to think, you can take what you’ve learned and apply it to a similar situation. However, if you learn how to think, you can take what you’ve learned and adapt it to multiple situations. In other words, how to think is learning how to learn, or as we like to say, it’s to learn, unlearn, and relearn quickly. My mission is to help schools as well as corporations find the optimal balance between what and how, and I’ve done this by focusing really on two areas: cognitive neuroscience and computer science. In cognitive neuroscience, what I’m looking for is how do we learn, that is, how do we create new neural pathways and looking at the impacts that bias, communication, education has on learning and memory.

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From a computer science point of view, looking for new technologies that not only allow us to study decision-making but allow us to create an environment that we can put people in so they can learn how to think. We’ve done this by creating highly advanced computer-based simulations. Using these simulations, we can challenge participants to make decisions and solve problems that are similar to the ones that they face in their own organization. So not only do they learn how to think about their own organization, but we can capture significant amount of data so we can assess their thinking over time.

This is what we found. When people have a lot of training, that is, a lot what-to-think training, and they’re placed in these simulations, and they’re confronting the problems that they face in the real world, most participants resorted to guessing, that is, when we gave them more data, tools, checklists, choices, their decision-making did not improve; if anything, it got worse.

So, realizing that many of the challenges that people face today are too big for just one person, we shifted our focus to looking at team performance. So, here is our line of thinking. We thought if we can improve team performance, how people collaborate, how they solve problems together, we can then improve their overall thinking and hopefully, their decision-making. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say we are all part of the big organization and a few of us have been tasked with growing a certain division of that organization. So we get together, and I get together with you, and I say, “Hey, what does growth mean to you?” And you say, “Well, it’s about profitability and revenue.” I go to someone else, “What does growth mean to you?” You might say, “It is about people and engagement.” And another person may say, “Well, it’s actually about market share and price.” All of these are valid.

We’re excited to be part of something new, a new initiative, doing something important for the organization, so we get out there and make a promise we’re going to grow this division by x percent over this period in time. Then we get back together, roll up our sleeves and start putting our plans together, and that’s when it hits us. The realization that we all have a very different perspective of what growth means. When that happens, conflict happens. We’ve all felt this.

I could easily switch the word growth with community. We all have different perspectives on community. Politics. Wow, lots of perspectives there. Family, relationships. Actually, I think that there’s lenses that they call Mars and Venus there. So realizing that when we feel conflict, because we have different perspectives, can be demoralizing. It can drain our energy and erode our passion. So, after about five years, we honestly felt like boiling the ocean, trying to find skills that improve team performance. We tried everything.

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We tried teaching people conflict resolution, coaching, mentoring, and we gave them checklists, and processes, and tools. Bottom-line: none of these created the sustainable improvement that we were looking for. When we were looking for that improvement, we decided to step back and ask a different question: what do top performers do? Finally, we found one skill that was common to all top performers. They developed ability to ask good questions. I know that sounds simple, but what they asked and how they asked was very different.

For example, many of them were able to suspend their judgment just long enough to understand someone else’s perspective, and in doing so, they were able to reduce the conflict, develop a common language, and create a shared vision. As the situation evolved, so did their thinking. I know we all ask a lot of questions, and that’s a really good thing; we want people to be asking lots and lots of questions. But what we found, however, is that most questions are safe, that is, they surface what is already seen or understood, they lead to regurgitated ideas and opinions. In other words, most questions that people ask really surface what is already known.

Top performers, however, ask questions that go deep. They ask questions that move us from automatic and reactionary thinking to deep thinking, they ask questions that inspire creativity, fuel passion, and lead to profound ideas, and most importantly, they ask questions that spur people into action. In other words, they ask questions that demystify the unknown, and in doing so, open up an ocean of possibilities. Our brain is an amazing searchable data base, linking emotions, memories, events, and experiences together to form answers to our endless questions. The success of a good answer, however, relies on the words we choose.

Our words have amazing power on our brain. How we use words in framing our questions is what differentiates a good question from a bad question. Let me give you an example. When we saw people put into the simulation, or confronted with these challenges, they started to make decisions. The teams that were struggling would ask, “What should we do?” and it was almost as though the options in front of them were just narrowed down. They became very short-term focused, whereas the other teams would ask, “What could we do?” and it was like the ocean of possibilities opened up to them.

The same is true for the types of questions we ask ourselves. For example, if I ask, “Why do I always procrastinate?”, my brain will surely tell me that’s because I’m lazy, because I have too much to do, I don’t know where to get started. However, if I slightly reframe that and say, “How am I going to get this done?”, my brain will surely find a better answer. I know if I was sitting out in where you are right now, I would say, “So what?” There’s got to be a lot more to this than just framing questions.

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Well, there is I believe that, since we’ve been taught what to think for so long, that the very idea of asking a question that triggers deep thinking provokes so many different emotions. It creates uncertainty, fear, anxiety, stress. These are all very real biological reactions to questions and from the neuroscience perspective, too much of any of these can impair our learning, our ability to connect, to listen and be present with one another.

So, what we found is that the individuals who would embrace these emotions, that is, understand that these are just part of the natural process, and asking good questions and allowing questions to do their work, then questions can really start to make a difference.

So a good question will expose our bias. A good question will surface our beliefs and oftentimes, questions will expose that we may not know something as well as we think we do. These are good things to have happened because when this happens, learning can take place. This is when people can come connected. This is when they can create relatedness, understand, and believe in one another.

This is when people can work together to adapt their thinking. So now, the good news is that I’ve seen kids, parents, coaches, business people, and even politicians break through these emotional and mental barriers and learn to become confident in asking good questions. There are a lot of challenges in this world. We all have them, whether they are in our business, in our cities, in our schools, in our families, in our relationships. We all have them.

We all have a very different lens on what these challenges are and how to address them. And this is a really good thing because I believe that most of these problems are too big for one person, and we really need each other. What if? What if you learned how to ask good questions every day? What if tomorrow, when you went to meet with somebody, you seek to understand them, instead of trying to be understood? What if before every important meeting you took time to write down questions that would move the conversation from the known to the unknown? What if executives led by questions, not by questioning but asking questions that inspired others to think about what they could do not what they should do?

What if churches, synagogues, mosques asked, “How ought we to live?” instead of focusing on what others don’t do. What if parents asked their kids, “What great question did you ask today?” instead of asking, “What did you learn today?” With questions, you get what you asked for, and in era in which computers are getting better at answering questions, we need people who are getting better at asking questions. Thank you.

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