The rights of the question

“For the partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions.”

– Plato, Phaedo

Too often in problem solving, we become fixated on the answer, and in the single-minded pursuit of that answer – that one, singular solution – we seek out those who we think might possess it. They are the experts, the specialists, the consultants; we know that when we have a problem, a question, then what matters most is to find a person with the answer.

But to have an answer is to ignore the question – to come in with an “expert point of view” is to assume a kind of intellectual partisanship in the problem-solving process. Far more powerful is to give due time and attention to the process of questioning.

I recently heard “killer questions” defined as questions that can’t be answered directly – these questions, and the exploration necessary to follow them through, can help unpack assumptions and gain new perspectives – but more importantly, can allow answers to emerge.

This is important in the typical consulting process. Clients typically ask a question or present a problem. The consultants go off and undertake their process of discovery, then return to present their answers. Sure, there may be a menu of answers to choose from, but they are answers nonetheless.

The great loss to the organization is that it did not go through the process of questioning, which in the end, is far more valuable than the answer it produces.

Why? Because questioning creates understanding. Because deep questioning is a creative process. Because going through a process of questioning together helps us to believe in our answers…and because going through the process keeps our answers from being stagnant and fixed – answers become as fluid and emergent as the questions that lead us to them.

So while it is helpful to have experts involved in the process of problem-solving, they are better involved as an input to the process, rather than as an output; their particular ideas and points of view should be swept into a process, instead of speaking for it.

2 Responses to “The rights of the question”

  1. Nicole
    September 1, 2010 at 6:21 pm #


  2. James
    October 22, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    I suggest discussing further over lunch. I’ve had a reservation at Milliway’s for some time that we can use. See you there?

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