As I speak to groups and consult with business leaders, when I ask, “What is the purpose of asking a question,” the overwhelming answer is, “To learn information.”
But is it really?
One of my family’s favorite games we play together and with guests at our home is called the Question Game. Here’s how it works…
Everyone sits in chairs in a circle. This circle at times can be quite large, especially since my wife and I have eight children and anyone added to that circle can really fill up a room. One person is designated as the king/queen. The person to their left is the dunce. The object of the game is to become the king or queen and hold that position.
The game starts off when the king/queen asks another member of the circle a question. It can be any question they want, but they have to look at one specific person to make sure that they received the question that was directed at them. After the first question is asked, the receiver can turn to any member of the circle and ask another question. The question does not need to be related to the first – it can be any question they would like except a question already asked in the same round. This repeats in rapid succession until someone accidentally repeats a question, hesitates too long, or answers the question instead of asking another question.
When someone breaks a rule, they are “out” and they must get up and move to the dunce chair. Everyone else moves up one chair closer to the king/queen to make room for the new dunce.
It seems like a very elementary game – one too simple to work. But it is a lot of fun. And, for many people, very difficult.
All you need to do is ask a question – any question. It doesn’t matter what it is. Why is the sky blue? Why do birds chirp? What is your favorite food? How long do you think the hair in your nose will grow?
What could be difficult about this simple game? It is difficult because it flies in the face of our human nature. Whenever someone asks you a question, you are trained to find the answer and relay it back. It is just what we do. And we are really good at it.
Why is the sky blue? Chances are, your mind just now quickly thought of an answer. What is your favorite food? You probably saw an image of that food and could taste it in your mouth. You have an almost mamilistic drive to answer. So in the Question Game, when you can’t answer, it runs against your very nature and can easily mentally throw you off.
The offending person in the game inherits the dunce chair usually in one of two ways. First, when the question is asked, the person accidentally answers the question. Sometimes they try to cover it up with a question following quickly behind, but others catch it.
“How are you?”
“Fine. What is your name.”
They are out. Answers don’t belong in this game.
The second way someone gets out is that when a question is asked, they hesitate before delivering their answer. If they are smart about it, everyone has their next question in their mind ready for delivery the moment they are asked a question. Then why would they hesitate? It’s because when they are asked their mind immediately wants to answer. For some people, this innate impulse is so strong that they constantly hesitate too long and visit the dunce seat more than the others.
I have learned to take advantage of this phenomenon and have come up with a question that unsuspecting new players to our game almost always break on. They are questions that naturally force the recipient to answer in their heads before they ask another question.
“Did you know that the next person you ask a question to will also be the person you like the least in this circle?”
What does this do? It forces them to answer the question, “Who do I like least in this circle,” and they start looking around. Naturally, they must follow it up with the realization that they can’t ask anyone their question because it will communicate to the whole group that they are the least liked – and everyone is watching who they will ask! So they hesitate, wanting to ask another question but knowing that the moment they ask a question of someone, they have essentially answered the question at the same time and will have offended that person. Then their mind races for ways to make this work without offending yet being able to ask another question. By the time they go through this mental exercise, everyone calls them out on hesitating too long and pronounces them as the new dunce.
When a question is asked, we are hard-wired to answer it by natural instinct. We may not say the answer out loud, but we at least think it.
This is one reason why bad mental self-talk is so damaging. “That was a stupid move. Why did I do that? ” Your mind will now look for the answer. “It’s because I’m not as good as the others are. I don’t have the experience. They are better than I am.” When you ask yourself a degrading question, your mind will find an equally degrading answer.
But it is also a key to mind control. Wait – What? Am I saying you can control someone’s mind using questions? Actually, in a way, yes.
When you ask a question, the person to whom it was directed (and oftentimes those within earshot) will look for an answer. You have naturally forced them to think about what you wanted them to think of.
Now, is that real mind control? No. But it gets us thinking: Can questions be used for more than just learning information? Can it be used to guide someone down a mental path that you have chosen? It sure can. But more on that later…