I hate it when people give me advice, especially the unsolicited variety. It’s almost like they manage to activate a switch in my brain that works to disconnect much of my neural circuitry. I often immediately begin dissociating. My eyes glaze over and my mind begins traveling to all sorts of strange places. Something similar happens when I try to take instruction, although with seemingly less disconnect if I’ve initiated it. I attribute it to faulty brain wiring.
Giving expert advice turns out to be a less-than-optimal neurological use of language in teaching and learning. Having a parent or a learned professor stand and lecture for long periods of time is good for approximately ten minutes for most of us (John Medina’s Brain Rule No. 4). After that, distraction takes over and the majority of people simply tune out. In this recent study by Emory University neuropsychiatrist Gregory Berns, whom I’ve written about before (author of Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently), my experience of disconnection seems to be confirmed. When offered expert advice, a part of our brain actually shuts down!
Better for teaching and learning are structured situations where exploration and discovery are the encouraged norm. Social activist Fran Peavey suggests that such a structure often results through putting Strategic Questions into play. Here’s a decription of Strategic Questions that I’ve excerpted from my book, Right Listening:
Strategic questions have a number of elements that make them unique and set them apart from run-of-the-mill, everyday questions. They’re generally asked with the intention to reveal ambiguity and open up fresh options for exploration. They can be tough questions because they break through the façade of false confidence and reveal the profound uncertainty that underlies all reality. Experts use them to become experts, not to become advice-givers. These questions invite movement toward growth and new possibilities that empower people, old and young, to create strategies for change in many areas of life.
There are eight key features that distinguish a Strategic Question. First, a Strategic Question is a helpful, dynamic challenge that encourages movement and change. Instead of “Where should I apply for a job?” a Strategic Question might ask, “What work would I be happy doing for the rest of my life?”
A Strategic Question encourages options. Instead of “Who might we get to help us with this project?” a more dynamic possibility might be: “Which people can we support and ally with to help build co-operative synergies?”
A third feature of Strategic Questions is that they are empowering. Examples often begin with the query, “What would it take …?” For example, “What would it take to make you feel your life had ever-expanding purpose and meaning?”
Two more features of Strategic Questions are that they don’t ask “Why?” and they cannot be answered “Yes” or “No.” Questions that ask “Why?” close down creative options and often generate guilt and defensiveness. Questions that can be answered “Yes” or “No” often only skim the surface or bring dialogue and inquiry to a dead end.
Next, Strategic Questions address taboo topics. There is tremendous power to create change inherent in them, because they challenge underlying values and assumptions. An timely example of such a question would be “What was it that kept us from talking honestly about the wisdom of taking out a home mortgage we couldn’t afford?”
A seventh aspect of Strategic Questions is that they tend to be simply structured, focusing on one thing at a time. ”What one thing can you do to make your work more enjoyable?” or “What will restore vitality to your spiritual practice?”
Finally, Strategic Questions assume human equality. They are deeply respectful of people and their capacity to change and grow in healthy ways. They are positive, life-affirming inquiries designed and intended to support human personal, professional and spiritual transformation. (pg. 79-80)
How Now Results in “Wow!”
Strategic questions work to explore the “how” of possibilities. My guess, based not on empirical research, but primarily on how things feel in my brain and body when I connect and resonate creatively with other people, would be that, rather than operating to close down neural connectivity, this method of exploration works to excite and energize and connect brain neurons. Aren’t these then, the kinds of questions we might want to learn to pose to our friends, families and elected representatives?