“The human mind thinks best in the presence of a question.”
So says Nancy Kline, the author of Time to Think and More Time to Think. Turning that idea over in my brain a million times caused me to recognize that questions matter, and they matter deeply in every field of human thinking. The nature and quality of the questions we ask determine the nature and quality of the thinking we spark and the answers we receive.
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I learned in law school that certain types of questions produce particular kinds of answers. For example, “open-ended questions” elicit a different kind of answers than “yes/no questions,” and these are different from “leading questions,” which guide a witness to testify a certain way. The type of questions we ask or the way we phrase or frame our questions influences the answers we receive.
This principle is readily seen in the field of education. As a Portuguese instructor, a professor of business law, and now as a facilitator of professional training, I have observed that students receive, process, store, retrieve, and apply information differently according to the types of questions they are asked and, indeed, by the types of questions they anticipate they will be asked. The learning and thinking processes for one type of question are different from the learning and thinking processes for all other kinds of questions.
For example, a course in which students believe they will be graded with a true-false, multiple choice, matching, or short-answer exam will produce a different kind of thinking and learning than a course in which the anticipated exam is essay, open-ended, problem-solving, or issue-spotting. Similarly, an oral exam results in a very different educational experience than a written one. The same is true of a class in which pop quizzes are the norm compared to one in which there is but a single final exam.
The type and style of questions also determines the nature, quality, and quantity of feedback teachers receive regarding students’ comprehension of the subject matter and their ability to apply the material elsewhere. Some kinds of questions return rich and abundant information about the student and the learning process, while others yield scant and sketchy insights. Teachers who want to understand how well their students are thinking and what they are learning should pay careful attention to the nature of the questions they ask.
“Successful” students — i.e. those who score well on exams — learn how to anticipate the nature of the questions they will be asked and apply the learning and testing strategies that work best for those kinds of questions. On the other hand, “successful” students — i.e., those who learn to think clearly about the material and then put it to use in the “real world” — think beyond exam questions and anticipate the issues the “real world” will present them.
So how’s this relevant to professional advisors? What’s true in the field of education is also true in our work with clients—the type and style of questions we ask matters deeply.
Our questions determine which issues our clients think about, and then drive the way they think about them. If our questions are analytical and numbers-oriented, our clients will think analytically and will focus on the numbers. But if our questions are more intuitive and visionary, our clients will be more reflective and more thoughtful about the purposes and impact of their planning.
In her wonderful book, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life,” Dawna Markova writes:
The brain has both analytic and intuitive ways of processing information. They are meant to work hand in hand, but usually end up in an arm wrestle. If we analyze only as we have been taught to do in most schools, snapping at the first answer that comes along, then judging it good or bad, right or wrong, the shy intuitive mind, not unlike a prairie dog, runs for cover. Analysis, when improperly done, causes paralysis. It creates a world “out there,” of which we are only spectators and in which we do not live. It is commonly called objectivity.
If, on the other hand, the analytic mind asks open questions of discernment — “I wonder how this would work. . . . What would it look like if this were really possible? . . .” the intuitive mind begins to explore many possibilities, weaving its way through the trees until it has a sense of the whole forest and its meaning in nature’s scheme of things. Pop!
This wandering and wondering are not useful when one is dealing with issues such as the computation of income taxes. But the exploration of purpose and passion requires us to uncover patterns and understand the relatedness between things, and then synthesize them into a new whole. This is the terrain of intuitive processing. Personal truth can not be found in either analytic thinking or intuitive thinking alone. It can only be uncovered in an open inquiry between them.
The best planners are comfortable working in both sides of the brain, and are skilful in getting their clients to do the same. But because we work in a presumptively analytical world, it is not always easy to inspire ourselves or our clients to operate concurrently in the intuitive world. It can sometimes feel awkward or invasive. And yet, if we fail to go there, we are stuck in the shallow waters of “the computation of income taxes” and similar tasks, ending often in “analysis paralysis.”
So what is the secret to moving our clients—and ourselves—comfortably and confidently into the deep waters of real thinking about the significant human issues that should underpin and overlay great planning? From my three decades in the planning professions, my answer is to employ an abundance of what I call “story-leading questions.”
Stories are our native language, and everyone, including our most analytical client, has a story to tell. Stories are a right-brain, intuitive activity that naturally invites the “wandering and wondering” and the “exploration of purpose and passion” Markova describes. In the hands of a caring and artful advisor, story-leading questions and the stories they spark beckon clients (and also advisors) to “uncover patterns and understand the relatedness between things, and then synthesize them into a new whole.”
The result is a masterful, thoughtful blend of solid numbers and bottom-line analysis, together with deep, rich, and meaningful insight into the client’s purposes and passions. The hard realities of the tax code and the stock market are thus woven seamlessly with the heart and soul and vision of the human beings for whom we are planning. Literally, a new world, the future world our clients are seeking, is created.
The key to this beautiful and powerful approach to planning is the art of the story-leading question. It unlocks the door to what I believe is the best planning on the planet: story-based planning.
What insights do you have about the impact of questions in your work with clients? How can we learn to ask better questions? I’d love to hear from you on this subject.
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