What you don’t know can’t hurt you (unless it’s DIY electrical work), or so the proverb goes. There may be some truth to the maxim, which suggests you not ask too many questions if you’re not sure you’re going to like the answer. But now there’s new thinking about the limitless value lying dormant in that treasure chest of things you don’t know. According to Dawna Markova, Ph.D. and Angie McArthur, authors of Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking With People Who Think Differently, what you don’t know could very well be the foundation for your future greatness, if you’re willing to change the way you think.
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Markova has forever been fascinated by the relationship between great questions and expanding possibility. Early in her life she learned that amassing answers when asking the right questions was a sure way to earn accolades and approval, but as a graduate student in clinical psychology, she discovered a new philosophy (pioneered by psychiatrist Milton Erickson) that encouraged her to “open my mind in wonder, to become uncomfortable with uncertainty, to explore a limitless range of possibilities.” If you’ve ever asked yourself “Why do I keep doing this?” “Did I make a mistake?” “Will I never learn?” you’re engaging in the kind of Q&A that can close your mind like a fist and restrict access to the full range of your own intelligence. Markova says those are the questions that divide your mind in half: good/bad; smart/not smart. “Learning to inquire artfully can open your mind to wider and deeper ways of knowing. It can also transform how you talk to yourself.”
So how to ask the right questions?
Shifting to this inquiry mindset of asking the right questionsdoesn’t involve special training, just simple curiosity. It requires letting go of being certain of the answer and instead being willing to explore the question. “You strengthen your mental muscle by holding uncertainty,” she says. It also means you can stop trying to be right all the time.
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Asking great questions can be challenging, especially for people in leadership positions. “From a young age we’re taught that a specific relationship exists between answers and rewards.” Markova says that while embracing a “not knowing” mentality might feel awkward, it actually makes it more possible for us to learn. “Imagine what would happen if, in the midst of a disagreement with someone, you were to ask yourself, ‘What do I need to be learning right now?’ How would that be different from asking yourself ‘who is right and who is wrong?’” This kind of approach has the potential for softening or even neutralizing adversarial relationships. It can also drastically improve people’s willingness to actually listen to each other.
Markova wants us to know that our intelligence is not fixed; it evolves when we shift our thinking to view obstacles and negative feedback as learning opportunities. To begin this growth process, she says we should ask ourselves three simple questions when faced with a challenge.
What can I learn from this?
How can I grow my capacity?
How can I do this better?
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You can use this method for anything, from a failed recipe to a faltering relationship. For each question there is an ever-evolving answer. It’s a great tool for reinvention and personal improvement because asking the right questions forces you—in a gentle way—to connect with yourself and where you are right now; to pay attention to what you are experiencing in the moment; to notice the effect you are having on others; and to reconnect you to your goals. And let’s face it, not having to know all the answers is a luxury few of us have been allowed—or able—to indulge. Good to know that not knowing is a viable option after all.
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