A Tool for These Uncertain Times

As I’ve previously written, there are so many ways the simple act of asking questions can improve our lives—by helping us to learn, figure things out, solve problems, make better decisions, communicate and empathize better with others.

But in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular aspect of questioning. It is a tool we can use in dealing with uncertainty and the unknown. Think of questioning as a trusty flashlight that we shine into the surrounding darkness of the unknown. Each question we ask illuminates a new area. And we can determine how much light is cast by the type of question we ask. (Open-ended “how” or “why” questions cast a wide field of light; closed yes/no questions project a more laser-like, pinpoint stream of light.) By asking the right questions, we can uncover new information; analyze whether this new information is important and what it might mean to us; and hypothesize about what to do next. With our questioning tool in hand, we are able to begin to make sense of the mysteries around us–which can also enable us to take small steps forward in the face of uncertainty.

This aspect of questioning makes it extremely valuable to scientists, innovators, creative artists, and explorers. As I’ve found in my research, people who invent, create, and explore tend to be very comfortable asking questions as they confront the unknown. They may look at a puzzling situation and ask, What does this mean to me? How should I be reacting or adapting to it? What can I learn from this situation? Is there a problem here that I can help solve? Innovators and creators tend to thrive in these dynamic circumstances.

But many of us are less comfortable with uncertainty and with asking exploratory questions that don’t necessarily have easy answers. Which can make it all the more difficult for us to cope in times of great uncertainty—such as our current circumstance.

That’s why I think it is especially important in these times to try to embrace a “questioning mindset.” By that I mean, an attitude or disposition that is curious, open to new information, inclined to rigorously question that new information, and, perhaps most important, willing to ask challenging questions about how we might adapt to what’s going on around us and make the best of it. If you can embrace this mindset, it can help you navigate the current challenges with a spirit of resourcefulness.

To use the questioning tool effectively in troubled times, strive as much as possible to ask “beautiful questions”—ones that are open-ended, optimistic, and actionable. Don’t ask, Why is this happening to me?—a passive/victim question that people often find themselves asking in times of trouble. Better to ask, Given that this is happening, what can and should I do about it? How might I make the situation better in some small way? On the most basic level, that could mean being vigilant about personal safety measures to inhibit spread of the virus. But keep asking these kinds of questions and it may inspire you to think of ways to take your response to a higher level—by providing some type of service or assistance to your community, for example.

This is also a good time to use questioning to sharpen your critical thinking—which becomes more important during a crisis. As we’re all being bombarded with news, views, and prognostication about the current situation, it’s critical to understand that some information coming at us is more relevant and trustworthy than other info—and that it’s up to us to use our built-in “questioning filter” to sort through the noise. Foster the habit of asking basic questions like, What’s the evidence behind this claim? and Is this useful information?

Lastly, in this period of the “great pause,” when so many of the activities that normally fill our schedules have been shut down, we have the luxury of time—and that means we have time to consider questions that might normally get pushed aside. This could provide a good opportunity to focus on your Big Beautiful Question (BBQ)—that ambitious question you might wish to pursue in the future, after the pause has ended. Think about a goal you want to achieve, a problem you’d like to solve. Frame it as a How Might I or How Might We question. Write it down or post it. And start thinking about how you might take action on that BBQ, in small initial steps. (My own BBQ is, How might I spread the word about the importance of questioning? It’s a question I’ve been working on for years, but I think this pause provides an opportunity to step back and think about the question fresh—from new angles and with a broader, long-term perspective.)

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: When you ask yourself big, ambitious questions, don’t worry about not having an answer right away. Beautiful questions often don’t have quick and easy answers. You have to spend time with them; and you must, at least temporarily, live with the uncertainty of not having an immediate answer. But time is something many of us have right now—and uncertainty is something we’re all learning to live with.


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About the Author

Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including his three books on questioning: A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas; its follow-up THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead; and BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry. Warren’s writing has appeared in Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, and he writes the “Questionologist” blog for Psychology Today. He lives in Mount Kisco, New York. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts

1 Beautiful Comment

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  1. Sitting with a question, as you say, can be especially effective when you watch for signs – there is information /guidance waiting for us to notice… I call it MOM, the Magic in Ordinary Moments. A fanciful idea but whimsy is fun. A lot of the messages I’ve got from MOM have been fun(ny). Come to my website for stories of MOM, etc.