We all need question training. At a time of climate emergency and Brexit deadlines, there’s a temptation to force answers. I get the urgency, but pausing and asking a better question is often better than panicking and rushing to judgement.
Some of the most iconic moments in history, literature and our personal lives revolve around a question. From “To be, or not to be, that is the question:” to (more recently), “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” (Albert Einstein)
What’s the best food-related question I’ve heard recently? It has to be: “Why are you bribing us with toys in Happy Meals?” That’s the brilliant question a young girl on stage at the Children’s Future Food Inquiry asked of business representatives in the audience (and of one company in particular). Powerful, directed, provocative, targeted…
For those of you with children, nephews or nieces and/ or grandchildren, I bet you’ve also been asked some uncomfortable questions by your little ones. A study from a few years ago suggested that girls aged four on average asked a question every 1 minute 56 seconds of their waking day. That’s pretty draining for the parent or guardian.
When you dive into questions in more detail, it can be a minefield. An open-ended question like ‘How can we tackle inequality?’ can either be a great question or a terrible question, depending on the context, the audience and the reason why it was asked. The same can be true of a direct and specific question. In a food context, the level we ask a question at is important. ‘How can we tackle all the food system’s problems’ is probably too big and overwhelming a question.
I definitely don’t claim to have all the answers – and I don’t claim to be a question expert (not sure if such a thing exists?). I have been asking a ‘Q for the day’ on social media for a little while now, so I thought I’d share a few insights from what has been a fascinating experiment. These are my reflections, rather than a definitive guide, but I hope it’s helpful. I’d love to hear your thoughts so we can learn from each other how to ask good questions. Some elements of a question that can be effective
Make it personal
Make it positive
Make it practical
Make it purposeful or Provoking (of thought or action)
The above are some of the questions I’ve asked this year on twitter that have been most successful in eliciting a response from people. Some of them have been linked to topical news or publications e.g. diversity of crops was asked in relation to the release of a new biodiversity report; the national food strategy was related to the (internal) launch of work on a new national food strategy.
Some rules of thumb I’m rapidly learning:
As for the best question I’ve ever asked (and it’s not work-related), it was a direct, specific and considered question I asked my then girlfriend on 8th December 2006 and it definitely wasn’t asked on Twitter!