I have just gone through a week of intense learning sessions. So many people and so much information, I found myself often quietly sitting there because I didn’t know what to ask. I was told when I was in school that we should always ask questions and that no question is stupid. But what happens when you just get stuck and how do you get unstuck?
Start with what you do know
We’ve all been there. We’re sitting in a class or training session and the teacher or instructor is going through the lesson, but no one asks anything. Maybe they think they know all the answers. Maybe they don’t want to look stupid in front of everyone else. It could also be they don’t even know what to ask or where to start.
Know-It-All (or so you think)
I’m not saying you act like a know-it-all but if you’ve already learned the lesson or the answer is clear to you, it could keep you from asking questions. I would still listen to what the instructor has to say, more importantly what other people ask. They might trigger a thought in your mind that gets to a deeper question that you didn’t realize was there.
I’m not stupid
No question is stupid. You might think, “I’ll figure it out…” If there’s a term or process you don’t know, you should just ask for some clarity. You just want to make sure you do know what you know.
It’s just a blur
It happens… Sometimes the instructor talks so fast you barely caught anything or maybe the subject wasn’t explained clearly. Questions can stop the instructor and force them to slow down and repeat what they said.
It could be that the subject is just way more complex than you realized. In that case, you’ll need to get yourself into a meeting outside class to talk to your teachers. How will they know you don’t understand if you don’t tell them? You definitely don’t want to wait, either… you might forget what you wanted to ask or miss a key point for the next lesson.
Most kids have asked this like a kajillion times annoying their parents and teachers, but it is truly one of the most effective questions no matter how old you are. It gets to the true reason, purpose, and function. When you dig deep and keep asking why questions, you get to the root of the problem.
The founder of Toyota Industries, Sakichi Toyoda, developed the 5 Whys technique to solve problems. Mind Tools explains how they use this for business, but this can be used for everyday life. The one note they point out is that the 5 Whys uses “countermeasures” instead of “solutions.” What’s the difference? A solution will only deal with the symptom. A countermeasure is an action or set of actions that will prevent the problem from happening again.
<<< 5 whys in action – a simple single line of questioning
Can you give me an example?
If you’re a little unsure and just need some clarification to verify what you know (or don’t know), this is a good approach.
Sometimes you’re asked to recall something from grade school… whether it’s for your job or helping your kids with their homework… things change. So when one of my kids asks me how to solve a particular problem, I check the examples in the book. I want to be sure I understand how they want them to get to the answer. This is also especially good for more abstract ideas to help us truly picture it. Which leads us to…
What is this similar to?
You could be in a situation where you don’t know the right terms and you can’t put your question into words. Comparing can help you visualize what the lesson is about in terms that you can relate to. If your idea of what you think is going on, doesn’t match up, then your teacher can help realign your thinking.
Comparison and examples also work well together to define things more clearly in terms of particular characteristics. For example, a square is a rhombus, but a rhombus is not always a square. The difference adds clarity and definition.
Don’t ask YES or NO Questions.
When you use “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and of course “why,” you get more thoughtful answers that might have additional information that you might not have known existed.
Asking questions takes practice, but there are ways to improve this important life skill. We’re supposed to learn this while we’re in school, but everyone is so focused on the grades and achievement that they’re afraid of being wrong. Sometimes we have to go back to the basics and be humble enough to ask for help.
When you’re trying to conquer a larger idea, you can use a mind map to outline your thoughts to show what you know and don’t know. Take what you don’t know and put that on your bucket list of things you need to learn. This is something you can use for any part of your life. You might choose a profession where a skilled question is especially crucial (like with lawyers). No matter what, questions are the most direct path to learning and problem solving.