Sustainability
Opinion Article
December 22, 2020

How powerful questions can change the world

I feel that I spend much more time searching foranswers than exploring good questions. And I think I am not the only one. Thisis how our society is structured. Our families rarely spark the inquisitivemind of our children. Our schools and universities always evaluate our answers,not our questions. Many workplaces see reflection time as a waste of time. Ourpolitical parties seek to give answers to their people, rarely ask questions.

I am worried we dedicate so little of our time tothink about questions or live them, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke used to say.

Why are questions important to us?

Questions are important because they determine wherewe put our attention and, consequently, the direction of our personal andprofessional growth.

In my work, it never ceases to amaze me how thequestions we ask throughout a project shape its outcomes. Working with localcommunities in social & environmental impact programs, I have seen thatwhen we ask a community, "What is ugly?", "What's broken?"and "What do you need?" the people gradually develop a perspective ofthemselves focused on what's ugly, what's broken and what's missing. When weinstead ask, "What do you find beautiful in this community?","What resources and talents do you have?" the people tend to developa more holistic and dignified vision of themselves focused on what's beautifuland the resources and talents they already have. This second set of questionsgenerates answers. projects, and relationships that are completely differentfrom the first. David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva have called this methodthe Appreciative Inquiry¹.

The problem is that we often don't think about thequestions as we don't even have the conscience that the question exists andinfluences everything we do. For example, as an economist, I (and many others)have spent most of our time at university studying"How do we grow theGross Domestic Product over the long-term?".

But, is this the right question?

If economists focused on a question such as "Howto develop a society in which all people and nature can thrive?", whattheories, economic models, business schools and economists would flourish tomeet these questions?

Are we investing our time and resources looking forgood answers to bad questions?

What makes a 'good' question?

In general, we all intuitively recognize a goodquestion. The Manitoba University has discovered that people tend toconsistently classify certain questions as more 'powerful' than others whilethere are cultural differences.

According to this university, powerful questionsgenerate curiosity, provoke new thoughts, stimulate reflection, revealhypotheses, focus attention, generate creative energy, and invite newpossibilities. Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs published abrilliant article² about the art of making powerful questions and shared manyexamples. Psychologist Arthur Aron also published a study where he describes 36questions that have shown to be able to accelerate intimacy between people whohave never met each other³.

A mission to the reader

There is nothing like changing our questions tochange the quality of our conversations. As you reflect back on the year thatis almost ending, think about what questions you have been asking and how theyhave shaped your projects at work and conversations at home.

What questions can you start asking that would makethe most difference for the areas in your life that you care the most about?

 

This content was originally published in the Observador, and it also present in João Brites Linkedin page.

João Brites

João Brites

Sustainability professional, economist, investor, and entrepreneur with 10+ years’ experience in enabling sustainable development through the power of data, technology and collaboration. Recognized by the World Economic Forum, Virgin Group, Red Cross, Ashoka and the British Council as a leading young global changemaker.

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