Why the key to getting better answers, is asking better questions

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

  • What’s your earliest food memory?
  • Which (one) word would you add to complete the sentence: “Food is…..”?
  • What’s one thing you could do that would make our food system just a bit kinder (not Kinder of the chocolate and toy variety)?

Make it positive

  • Who would you nominate for a food & farming Oscar (if such a thing existed) and why?
  • Which food and farming businesses are trying a different approach – that’s not the status quo?

Make it practical

  • How can we increase the diversity of crops we use?
  • What principles around eating (or not eating) meat do you follow?

Make it purposeful or Provoking (of thought or action)

  • What three words would you put at the heart of a national food strategy?

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:

  • ‘Yes or no’ polarising questions aren’t usually very helpful when considering contentious food issues
  • Asking for inspiring people and inspiring initiatives can be inspiring and empowering. Negativity breeds negativity. Positive, empowering questions are much more likely to illicit positive responses
  • Be clear about what you want your question to do and what response you want to illicit. Do you want to empower, inspire, provoke thought, provoke action, challenge your perspective or…..?
  • Questions that people can relate to and that draw an emotional attachment work well
  • ‘Policy wonk’ questions are likely to only appeal to policy wonk people!
  • Deep questions that require lots of thought don’t usually work in 280 characters on twitter. People are more likely to respond to these questions at weekends (rightly or wrongly) rather than on a rushed commuter journey during the week – but I’m definitely not advocating obsessing about social media every weekend!
  • ‘How can we’ is often an empowering and inclusive way to ask a question – although it’s good to be clear who you mean by ‘we’
  • ‘How should I or we’ is often harder, but is fundamental to ethical thinking
  • ‘What should we do, all things considered?’ isn’t always an easy one to respond to, but remains a powerful question when people are faced with contentious issues and different courses of action

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!