The Power of Asking the Right Question

13 August 2015

The Power of Asking the Right Question


By Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur, Authors of Collaborative Intelligence


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Although he’s best known for his humor, Jon Stewart is a master of something else that we sorely need right now: he knows how to ask a good question. Stewart is an expert at posing the kinds of questions that engage and connect with his guests—a diverse array of people, all of whom think differently. Before he leaves “The Daily Show” in August, we can watch this expert interviewer in action and learn something about the art of inquiry.

Inquiry is a powerful tool, and mastering it boosts our collaborative intelligence, what we refer to as CQ, allowing us to think well with those who think differently. Here’s a guide to becoming a master of the art of inquiry, like Stewart.

We tend to approach problems and ask questions in four different ways and from four distinct quadrants of our brains: Analytic (Why?), Procedural (How?), Relational (Who?), and Innovative (What if?) Ned Hermann, a creativity researcher and the father of brain dominance technology, reports that seven percent of adults favor just one quadrant, sixty percent favor two, thirty percent favor three and just three percent favor all four-inquiry styles.

Stewart favors all four quadrants, and as a result he can start off by asking one kind of question, and then intuitively shift to match the inquiry style that his guest is most comfortable with. This instantly creates a rapport and sense of connection, as if he and his guest are speaking the same language, even if Stewart disagrees with the person’s position. They may not like what he’s saying, but they stay connected and engaged in the conversation instead of slipping into typical fight, flight, or freeze responses.

Here are a few examples of Stewart’s inquiry style in action:


Jon Stewart

On February 28, 2012, when he interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson, he used an innovative question about the future to engage Tyson and bring him to the core of what really matters to him:

Stewart: Is what you are saying that we need to be investing in our future?

deGrasse Tyson: Yes. And that, in the 21st century, [that investment] will be the foundation of tomorrow’s economies. And without it, we might as well just slide back to the cave because that’s where we’re headed, right now. Broke.

When Stewart interviewed Malala Yousef on October 10 2013, he asked her a relational question about her human values, “You spoke out publicly against the Taliban, what gave you the courage to continue this? She replied from the same quadrant, “Why should I be looking to the government, to the army that they would help us? Why don’t I raise my voice, why don’t we girls speak up for our rights?”

Even in the midst of a heated debate on October 15, 2014 with “frenemy” Bill O’Reilly, over whether there was such a thing as white privilege, Stewart shifted to procedural questioning, O’Reilly’s natural style, to find a point of connection:

Stewart: Do you think your upbringing gave you values?

O’Reilly: Yes it did.

Stewart: You didn’t grow up rich did you? You lived where?

O’Reilly: Levittown

Stewart: So, it gave you a stable home with no down payments, incredible opportunities, is that right?

O’Reilly: Yes. It was stable and the GI’s got a mortgage they could afford, right.

Stewart: Let me just ask you one last question: did that upbringing leave a mark on you even today?

O’Reilly: Of course. Every upbringing leaves a mark on a person.

Most of us, out of habit, focus on the content of what someone is saying, and the internal reaction it causes in us, but we are not aware of inquiry style and its importance. Instead, to create a bridge between you and another person, ask yourself the following questions:

· From which quadrant is this person trying to influence me?

· From which quadrant am I trying to influence them?

· What could be right about what they are saying?

· What can I learn from their preferred style? How can I help them learn from mine?

You may not ever be a master interviewer like Jon Stewart, but you can learn to widen your perspective and adjust your style in order to connect with a person who thinks differently than you do.