Years ago, I was hired in from a field management job to a corporate training job. My job — or so I was told when they transferred me — was to take the training I had developed that produced rapid and reproducible results in the field and apply it across the country. What happened in reality was the training director who was currently doing train the trainer, sales and executive training was ready to move up and he wanted someone to replace him.
And do exactly what he was doing. Exactly how he was doing it.
I spent that first year learning how to be like him, how to deliver the training exactly as he was doing it. His method was very pedagogical. He would seat field trainers (who were used to working with their hands all day, assembling and repairing bicycles) in a classroom for 8-10 hours and “teach” them what he was certain of. For two solid days. And then send them back and expect great results.
Predictably, I failed at delivering the seminars he had created because I was trying to be him. On one training session, I decided to do it my way, without asking permission. I got in trouble; a lot of trouble. But the reviews came back and the enthusiasm of the participants made my boss back off. But not before making fun of me in front of his peers (he even made a custom t-shirt that had “Is it? Does it?” printed on the front. I’ve kept that shirt to this day.)
All good. I survived.
What I had done differently was start by asking questions. I kept asking questions until someone from the workshop started giving ME answers. Then they started asking questions of their own. And I would challenge them to find their own answers, which they did. As it turns out — as I suspected it would — these guys already knew the answers. What they needed were more relevant questions. What they needed to do was start asking themselves these questions. The only thing they needed from me was permission and a safe place to be wrong.
I also took their bosses out of the room and created a separate workshop for them. It was a fluff thing only to get them out of the room but they thought they were being trained to be better managers. Nobody got hurt.
The transformation from a room of blue-collar technicians sitting there taking notes and watching the clock to a room full of enthusiastic hands-on learners was phenomenal. They make movies that romanticize the learning moment but nothing compares to experiencing it in real life.
The theory was simple: I would rather someone be less certain about what I tell them than about what they discover for themselves. When people discover things for themselves, they learn how they got there. They learn to ask questions that got them there. They learn that showing their work is just as important than knowing the answer. They learn that they can solve problems for which answers have not yet been developed by asking more relevant questions.
They learn to be less certain of what they think they know, which gives them the courage and confidence to ask more questions.
Despite what the media screams over and over about our supposed leadership having all the answers to the current recession, the civil unrest in London, the jobs crisis, the debt ceiling, etc. what we need are better questions. I watched Meet the Press and Face the Nation yesterday morning. Every question with the candidate Bachmann and every discussion with the panel of pundits was a rehash of a narrative that had already been decided. The questions were just there to back into the answers, not the other way around.
When we see candidates all willing to pledge never to raise taxes no matter what or they raise their hands in staunch defiance of not compromising even when they get 90% of what they want, we should be very nervous. Heck, we should be scared out of our gourds! These candidates have already decided what the answer is without knowing what the question is. These candidates are also unwilling to ask questions outside what what they know to be certain of.
We don’t need political candidates with prepared answers to banal and predictable questions, crafted around ideologies, narratives and pledges. We need the candidates to start asking themselves the questions, starting with, “what do I not know?”
We also need the ordinary citizens to quit sitting there taking notes, watching the clock and regurgitating out what they’ve been told to be true. We need them to start asking questions of their own, starting with, “what does this candidate not know?” and “what does this news journalist not know?”
I give you permission to start today.