Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading, and Ian McDermott, founder and director of International Training Seminars, explore how an understanding of the brain can contribute to developing the art of strategic questioning.
Asking great questions is a skill that underpins our ability to learn and to find out what’s really going on. It is therefore crucial. Neuroscience can help us do this more effectively. Below we outline some of the neuroscience principles critical for success. Much of our work consists in showing individuals and organisations how to apply these, and other skills, in practice. They certainly will make a huge difference if you want people to become better at strategic questioning.
1. Neuroplasticity is the key to everything else
New challenges require new thinking and new learning. Sometimes this can feel like hard work for all concerned. In our experience many organisations and individuals have outdated and limiting beliefs about what is possible. These derive from an outmoded understanding of the brain and have self-defeating negative consequences.
To take just one example, it’s important for anyone associated with L&D not to fall into the trap of thinking that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. On the contrary we now have conclusive evidence that that is precisely what you can do because of the brain’s amazing neuroplasticity. Over the past few years the old view of the brain as a fixed asset with regions which could be knocked out has changed dramatically.
Neuroplasticity refers to the way that the brain is reorganised as new information, new ideas or new skills are stored. This happens through forming new neural connections and even new neurons. We now know that this occurs not just during the early years of life but that this process is taking place throughout the whole of your life.
This has huge implications when considering how best to activate the learning – and earning – potential of both individuals and teams. The ability to ask great questions is a skill that can be mastered by individuals with the right motivation and teaching.
So two fundamental questions to consider: in the light of recent neuroscience research do your people need to rethink their ideas about their own and others’ potential capability? Do they know how to build on their own and other’s neuroplasticity?
2. Linking curiosity to dopamine reward
If you’re not curious you’re not interested. If you’re not interested you’re unlikely to ask really good questions. So fostering curiosity is crucial to developing strategic questioning.
If you want a good example of how to ask questions, just listen to a child. They are natural questioners who never worry about whether their questions are foolish – their natural curiosity just shines through. Curiosity directly activates reward – we get a buzz out of finding out new information. If we were to ask you “Who won six consecutive Wimbledon singles titles in the 1980s?” your reward centres would become more active at the thought of finding out the answer. So, when you are learning, having a curious approach will not only help you to ask better questions but will also provide you with its own reward.
However, the reward that comes with curiosity can be overwhelmed by a fear of getting the answer wrong. Most of us have chosen not to ask a question out of fear of humiliation. Often someone else then asks precisely the question you had chosen not to ask – only to be told that this is an excellent question! The reward of asking a good question has gone to someone else because of our fear.
It is much easier to learn when you are in control of the questioning. So conquering the fear and asking the question has the potential to increase your learning. This will happen not only because the question will be personalised to you and therefore more memorable, but also because we remember information with an emotional content better – even when that emotion is anxiety.
Consider this: how is your organisation fostering a rewarding learning culture by encouraging questions? Is your organisation fostering a learning culture by encouraging questions? Do you know how to take the fear and potential humiliation out of asking questions?
3. Metacognition – knowing what you don’t know
If you want to ask better questions you need to know about metacognition. Metacognition refers to what we know about cognition and also how we regulate cognition. Here are a couple of examples of what this means in practice.
Our brains have two powerful evolutionary drives. First, our brains are set up to make sure that we learn the gist of a new concept fast because it could be the key to survival. However we are not so good at remembering detail. Second, our brains will try to make sense of any new information by generalising from it and applying it across the board to get maximum leverage from this new learning.
An example of this is the way that our brain detects faces in inanimate objects. Faces are important so we look for them everywhere and see them even when they don’t exist. However, our brains are not so good at checking for counter examples or anomalies – we don’t notice how many times there are no faces!
Ever had the experience of learning something new and thinking you’ve mastered it, only to discover that there were gaps in your understanding? Understanding metacognition means you’ll know to ask yourself some searching questions about what you really know. One easy way to do this is to consider whether you could teach someone else the new material? If your answer is no, think of the additional information that you would need. This will allow you to ask the important questions. An added bonus is that these will provide missing details which will improve your recall.
To counteract the brain’s tendency to generalise and not to notice anomalies, develop the habit of asking whether this would work under all conditions? If you can think of a situation in which a new idea would not work, use this to fashion some incisive questions.
Businesses need to ensure their people know how to put metacognition findings to work and avoid the thinking traps, and these learnings need to be embedded in every team culture.
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Achieving a more profound understanding of how the brain works can improve the art of strategic questioning. Strategic questioning requires that we want to learn and believe that we can. It is important that we are curious about what we might learn and this curiosity is reinforced by linking it to the dopamine reward system. Being constructively sceptical helps us to overcome the brain’s natural tendency to make meaning and rush to conclusions. Even the anxiety around whether we are asking a foolish question can help us to remember the answer more effectively.
About the authors: Patricia Riddell is Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading. Ian McDermott is Founder of International Teaching Seminars.
Latest posts by Patricia Riddell (see all)
- How Neuroscience can improve Strategic Questioning - August 15, 2014