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Ignorance and Inquiry

“War is peace, freedom is slavery, and Ignorance is strength.”
—George Orwell

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”
—Mark Twain

Last week some friends asked us over for dinner. It was so refreshing to talk with folks who were not only well read and highly informed, but also demonstrated interest in our lives. While we were finishing up a wonderful salad of fresh greens and nuts, the host asked me, “what was a highlight of your career?” I almost choked on a pistachio, because I am so unaccustomed to having people inquire about my life.

Maybe I’m just hypersensitive to the dearth of Inquiry I observe because of my life experience. I was trained in Military Intelligence to ask questions, I spent 40 years as a psychologist trying to understand what makes people tick, and I’ve been married for 47 years to the most inquiring person I’ve ever met. There is no limit to the details she genuinely wants to know about peoples’ lives. And she remembers the tiniest details ten years after she heard them. I sometimes have to kick her under the table to get her to stop asking questions.

In general, however, it seems to me that the scarcity of inquiry has led to an abundance of ignorance.

Here are a few facts to make my point:

  • About 64% of Americans can’t name the three branches of government.
  • About 47% of Republicans believe they will not feel the effects of climate change in their lifetime. In fact, there are only 8 republicans out of 278 in the GOP Congress that believe in climate change.
  • About 43% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years.
  • 29% of Americans can’t name the vice president.
  • 26% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth.
Author: Uwe Kils and Wiska Bodo | Author URL: | Source: | License: CC BY-SA 3.0
A photomontage of what a whole iceberg might look like.
Title: Iceberg | Author: Uwe Kils (iceberg) and User:Wiska Bodo (sky). – (Work by Uwe Kils) | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

I wonder how many of the 28% of eligible voters who cast their ballot for Trump fall into one or more of those five groups. And I wonder what percentage of Americans really know the facts about health care or immigration policy.

I could go on, but this level of ignorance leaves little doubt that some people refuse to ask simple questions or acknowledge basic facts in order to maintain their fact-light beliefs. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to learn the three branches of government and the leaders of those branches. And, discovering basic truths about creationism, climate change, evolution, and astronomy doesn’t require a lot of inquiry.

I just finished reading two books on the importance of inquiry. The first, A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger[1], demonstrates how the power of inquiry sparks breakthrough ideas. Berger examines the ways deep questioning can lead to innovation and change. Doing research for the book, Berger interviewed leaders at dozens of companies including Google, Netflix, IDEO, and Airbnb, as well as hundreds of artists, educators, and activists about the role of questioning in their successes. Drawing on an E.E. Cummings quote[2], he suggests that the person who finds the most beautiful answers is the one who asks a more beautiful question. To me, there is real beauty and caring in asking deep, thoughtful, and provocative questions.

The second book, Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein[3], explores the gentle art of asking instead of telling. This book represents the culmination of 50 years of work as a social and organizational psychologist. After undergraduate training at the University of Chicago and Stanford and a Ph.D. from Harvard, Schein became a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

One of his most important discoveries was that the best path to helping people learn is not to tell them anything, but to ask the right questions and let them figure it out.

Humble Inquiry is a master’s masterful take on a critical human skill too infrequently practiced. In answer to the question, “Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships?”, Schein responded:

“Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.”

In my experience as an executive coach, I have found there are three critical skills for success:

  • Inquiring,
  • Re-Framing, and
  • Sharing Perspective.

Most coaching certification programs focus on the first two and discourage the third, but I will come back to that.

Deep and thoughtful questions typically start with “Why…,” “What if…,” or “How…”. The “why” question probes for purpose, the “what if” question opens the lens to explore wider possibilities, and the “how” question drills into the requirements for successful execution. Other open-ended questions like who, what, where, and when are also useful for understanding the details and context of any challenge; but why, what if, and how are more likely to have an impact and/or lead to a breakthrough. You know if you have asked a good question if the other person expands and deepens his or her exploration and if the question has a lingering impact on the person, i.e. they are still thinking about the question weeks after you asked it. The question may be provocative and unsettling, but if it is asked respectfully, it can lead to productive exploration and understanding.

Less helpful questions are more direct and usually start with:

  • Do you?
  • Did you?
  • Have you?

These questions typically yield a one-answer response like “yes” or “no.” The questions feel more like a guessing game than a real inquiry and tend to close the person down vs. open her or him up.

Re-framing is the ability to summarize in fresh and creative ways what the person has said. It requires deep, non-judgmental listening and responding.

Untitled | Author: Miwok | Source: Flickr | License: CC0
Untitled | Author: miwok | Source: Flickr | License: CC0

Re-framing can help the person see a situation in an entirely different way or through a different lens. I have always believed that it is important to paraphrase what the other person has said after asking a few questions so the person knows you are understanding their point of view and that you are not just sitting there nodding your head or murmuring uh huh, uh huh.

But let me come back to sharing Perspective. Yes, it is the opposite of inquiry and may be described as advocacy.

In my way of thinking, you have to earn the right to share your perspective through genuine inquiry and accurate responding.

Then you have a base of understanding on which you can share your point of view. The key word is sharing perspective, not imposing perspective. Given that, I have always found it valuable to say, “one option you may want to consider is…” Or, “if you are open to hearing a possibility, here is an idea to think about.” Or, “in my experience, I have found…“

In his book, Dereliction of Duty, H. R. McMaster, the newly appointed head of NSA, discusses the decision-making processes, or lack thereof, that led to the Bay of Pigs disaster under Kennedy and the Vietnam War under Johnson. In both cases, there was far too little inquiry, re-framing, and sharing of perspective. The cabinet members and military officers supporting Kennedy and Johnson were not asking the right questions or sharing openly their real opinions. They were trying to give answers that they thought the respective President, and/or their constituents, wanted to hear. Evidently, we haven’t learned the lessons from either the Bay of Pigs or Vietnam, but I take comfort that people like McMaster[4] and Mattis have key positions of authority in this new administration. They are experienced, thoughtful, scholarly, and inquiring professionals who will speak up with their version of the truth.

Four Douglas A4D-2 Skyhawk (BuNo 144894 in front) from Attack Squadron 34 (VA-34) "Blue Blasters" in flight. VA-34 Det.45 was assigned to Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Group 60 (CVSG-60) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Essex (CVS-9) for a short deployment to the Caribbean from 3 to 29 April 1961. The aircraft flew sorties over combat areas during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Cuba, on 17–19 April 1961. Author: Robert L. Lawson | Source: U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian | License: U.S. Government Work / Public Domain / CC0
Bay of Pigs Invasion, Cuba, on 17–19 April 1961.
Author: Robert L. Lawson | Source: U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian | License: U.S. Government Work / Public Domain / CC0

The main point here is that your perspective is more likely to be heard and appreciated if the person with whom you are relating feels like you have genuinely and humbly inquired about their point of view and you have asked more beautiful questions than they are accustomed to hearing.

So, the next time you go out to dinner with your friends, inquire about their lives. Ask an open-ended question. Heck, ask a provocative question. It might even lead to a meaningful conversation.

Lord knows, we could use a little more inquiry and a little less ignorance in this world. In his book 1984, Orwell described in horrifying detail the problems of believing that ignorance is strength. And Twain, in his satirical genius, made fun of the formula:

Ignorance + Confidence = Success.

Unfortunately, Trump missed the satire in those two statements. I’m hoping that more people will see that inquiry is the antidote for ignorance and start asking more beautiful questions.

What ideas do you have for increasing inquiry and reducing ignorance? Why is inquiry important to you? What if you asked more questions to the people you care about? hat if people opened up to evidence that may challenge their beliefs? How could you communicate more humility in your inquiries?

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More Information

[1] Warren Berger’s website

[2] E.E. Cummings quote

[3] Culture Fundamentals: 9 Important Insights from Edgar Schein, Culture University

[4] “Will Trump Take ‘Brutally Forthright’ Advice From McMaster?”, Peter Baker, The New York Times, Feb. 25, 2017

This post first appeared on Perspectives & Possibilities, please read the originial post: here

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Ignorance and Inquiry


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