The Power of Quality Questions

Published on January 28th, 2021

You know you are getting to the good stuff in a conversation when you cause the other person to pause, and the next thing they say is, "damn, that was a great fucking question." I was on a call with my mentor, and I could feel his energy rise, and his voice became more animated. He started to reference example after example from his own experience as he weaved down the rabbit hole, attempting to give me as much detail and nuance as he could. I was barely able to keep up, staying present while jotting notes. Again and again, I asked questions that were just beyond my skills and experience. Again and again, he lit up, and brain dumped a ton of wisdom. It was one of our best conversations to date, and it was mostly because I was asking more than talking (re-read that).

When we watch shows like Jeopardy or a speaker giving a TED Talk, it's easy to fall into the trap of wanting to be a know-it-all. That's one indication of knowledge: the ability to recall a lot of facts. But there is a more subtle and overlooked indicator of growth-in-action: the ability to form quality questions.

This seems counterintuitive at first, but hear me out. Until you have sufficient knowledge of a subject matter, your ability to ask novel questions is limited. If you know nothing of the brain and ask a neurosurgeon about the basics of their work, they can sleepwalk through the answers. However, if you know about all the different parts of the brain, how neurons fire, and how the mind-body connection works, you can easily think of 5-10 more probing questions that would require them to think more deeply when responding. And it's from this place of deep thought that quality answers will come from.

The reality is, the more extensive and more diverse your existing knowledge web, the deeper and more diverse the questions your questions can become. This is not only an indicator of prior learning. It's an opportunity for rapid growth in action. Here you can draw on a larger set of collective wisdom from the other person. And if you're talking to a person who loves to share, they may keep going and give you insights that wouldn't have made sense until they knew you had the basics in place.

Anytime you ask something that stops someone in their tracks with a "damn, that's a great question," pay attention. This could be the beginning of a massive brain dump of wisdom.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.