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Questions are great but only if you know the answers

"Questions are great, but only if you know the answers."

Why Experience Can Be Your Worst Enemy

Think about the message of this little graphic at the left for a minute: “Questions are great, but only if you know the answers.” That, my friends, is a central fallacy that for some reason has surfaced in my life over and over again this week like one of those pesky ads for a particular product that show up everywhere on the Internet once you click on the product link once.

Why do I find this to be exactly the wrong message? If you already know the answers, questions become irrelevant. Then questioning becomes irrelevant. And before long, we become irrelevant. It’s inevitable. Bear with me for a moment and I’ll explain, starting with this quote:

“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, right? But what if we did the same thing time after time and expected to get the same results?”

When I read that in a column we got recently from the fabulous Niki McKay, founder and principal of Blue Danube Productions, I was floored. It’s hard to argue that that isn’t just another form of insanity, isn’t it? If so, we’re all a little bit out there, because we do it all the time. We know the answer (or think we do), so we stop questioning.

Yes, we all know that “Because we’ve always done it that way” is probably the worst reason to continue to do something. But it’s easy, and it seems to make sense. If our participants loved the inspirational keynote speaker last year, of course we should go with something similar this year. Not the same, but close enough to get those smile-sheet check-offs we all seem to crave. And you know what? It works just enough, on year-to-year or meeting-to-meeting increments, to reinforce the behavior. They still like it—why mess with success? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Etc., etc. And studies have shown that the more we hear that one answer, the more likely we are to believe it.

We have an answer that works, so we don’t even have to think about what type of keynoter would be best for the here and now—we don’t have to question whether in fact that type of keynoter is still best, or even whether we need to have a keynote-led general session—or even a general session at all. Or whatever the tradition has become. We get stuck in that mental shortcut—one more item we can add to the checklist and not have to spend too much time or mental energy on. Whew, we know the answer, so we can just move on.

And so we end up with traditions that no longer make sense. There are lots of examples, like cutting off the ends of the roast beef before putting it in the pan, but this is my favorite example (from Snopes):

A young woman is cooking up her first Thankgiving dinner. As she puts the bird in the sink to thaw overnight, she makes sure she puts the dish rack over the turkey to help it thaw, just as her mother always did. But when she crowed to her mother that she even remembered to put the dish rack over the bird to help it thaw, her mother was confused. The punchline:

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

"Oh, I remember you always put the dish rack over the turkey when it was thawing in the sink," she said.

There was a pause on the end of the line. "Yes, but honey, we had cats!"

There may in fact once have been a good reason for whatever traditions we follow that has since aged out of relevance, and yet we blindly continue to do them. As one of my favorite thinkers, Tom Asacker, says in this meditation on the same subject (which weirdly and coincidentally hit my in-box this morning—is there something in the air?): “Our minds become protected by layers of fat we call experience.”

So let’s put our minds on a diet (if you are a fan of instituting gradual change). Or, if you want fast results, let’s go for some mental liposuction and unlearn some of those choices we’ve been making that have become so unconscious that we didn’t realize they were choices. Let’s strip it all the way down, become conscious of what we’re doing, and why, and be brave enough to admit that some of the things we do just don’t make sense anymore. Let’s question everything, including—especially—our assumptions.

P.S. One more thing, this from a book I’m reading called The Witch of Portobello, which is all about learning, unlearning, and tapping into deeper resources available to all of us if we can find ways to dance outside our accustomed rhythms, create a dissonance, that lets new ways of thinking and being in. (Yes, it’s kind of a strange book—not sure I am enjoying it, but it is making me think.) One interesting quote:

"Is learning just putting things on a shelf or is it discarding whatever is no longer useful and continuing on your way feeling lighter?"

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that most adult learning is pretty much about putting things on the shelf—literally, in the case of notes and handouts from a conference that get filed immediately upon return to the office, no matter how good your intentions were to put some of that to use. We learned it, we know the answer, no need to question—even to the point of asking who else might we pass it along to, or whether we'll remember it in a week.

So maybe one interesting way to think about learning at conferences is to think about how you can help participants unlearn that which is holding them back, to “discard whatever is no longer useful” so that they can continue on their way feeling lighter, free of their own unconscious traditions and more open to tapping into their own deeper channels of knowing. To stop being so sure and become comfortable with being unsure. Because that’s the place where real learning happens.

OK, enough from me. What do you think?

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