Ask Better Questions for More Than Just Better Answers

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 63 (November/December 2002)

1.   The Power of Listening

Back in Winsights No. 57 we saw the huge value of Socratic Method, not only in the classroom but in the workplace and generally. We saw Socratic Method as the basis not only for all effective techniques for evoking creativity and ingenious answers, indeed in nearly all human endeavor, but in developing further resources within the brain. We saw, there and elsewhere, that being really heard by a meaningful audience even has major positive effects for physical health.

In Higher Horizons One Hundred, an experiment conducted in Hartford, Connecticut, Public Schools in the late 1950s, researchers administered IQ tests to all students. Then, regardless of scores on the test, they picked out at random one student in each classroom and went to his or her teacher, secretively pointing him or her out. “Don’t let on,” they said to the teacher, “DON’T let on, but I thought you’d like to know. But don’t say a thing, don’t let on, to him or anyone else. You see that kid over there in the corner, yeah, that one: DON’T tell anyone, but he scored at genius level on our recent IQ test.” Probably the teachers did not let on, and certainly didn’t tell the kid in question. But by the end of the semester and another round of IQ testing, on average, these randomly selected kids had gained about 20 points in I.Q.

Some claim that this very considerable IQ gain was simply a product of self-esteem, but we’ve seen plenty of self-esteem building which didn’t produce anything like such gains. And the kid didn’t know he had supposedly scored high on an IQ test, nor did his classmates. But there was a very major reason WHY the kid DID gain 20 points IQ by semester’s end:

The teacher HEARD him differently. The teacher listened to what he had to say with much better-focused attention than she did the other kids in the classroom. It was the power of listening which made the difference.

More recently, in September of 2002, there was reported an experiment perhaps better suited to the spirit of our times, where, in an artificially constructed laboratory and classroom situation, the experience of not being heard and accepted, the experience of feeling rejected, in two weeks led to a tested decline in IQ of eight points. (Of course there wasn’t any hint in the reports that one might also go in the opposite direction and produce a gain in IQ.)

2. WHY being heard made such a powerful difference

The main natural law of behavior is Psychology’s Law of Effect: “You get more of what you reinforce.” To really be heard is very reinforcing, especially for not only such contents as might make your exposition worth listening to, but for whatever traits and techniques in your makeup contribute toward that listenworthiness in what you’re saying.

That is part of what built the genius of British Nobel Laureate astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. We’ve already seen how part of that genius was built — and his life itself sustained — by the healthful effects of being surrounded by bright people relaying your every thought and nuance to an eagerly awaiting world. Whatever skills and perceptions he had going in support of that also got tremendously reinforced within him, until he lives and breathes the dynamics of the cosmos and the starting of the universe, more readily than most of us handle supper.

We all “obey” the natural Law of Effect, just as we all “obey” the law of gravity. In every generation we are all descended only from those who WERE susceptible to reinforcement.

3. Scope of the Issue

It is our impression that the vast majority of human beings go to their graves without ever having even once been really heard by a meaningful audience on anything important to them.

We hold that it is a basic human right to be heard in depth, at length, by a meaningful audience, on matter after matter after matter. That to really hear one another out and even draw each other out, as Socrates did, is one of the best things that one human being can do for another.

4. The importance of reinforcing FIRST-hand personal perception and awareness

We’ve seen, in Winsights Nos. 33 and 57, among other pieces, that a principal strength of Socratic Method, and the reason it produced so many geniuses so consistently, is that when you make SOME specific response to your own first-hand awareness, you reinforce not only the particular awareness, be that thought or perception, but you reinforce the trait or behavior of BEING aware, thoughtful or perceptive.

Looking ahead to the main thrust of this present article:  What kind of question you ask largely determines the type of awareness which your employee or student or friend or client has to dig through and reinforce in his struggle to make answer to you (or in your own struggle to make answer to yourself). Below, we will look at several different types of question which might be asked Socratically.

5. Where the best can be found

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the Creative Education Foundation, recently of Buffalo, NY, ran definitive research on idea production in brainstorming sessions. Almost always, the best ideas would emerge toward or at the end of the session. The longer the session in which one had to keep digging for more ideas, the better the ideas which would emerge.

Betty Edwards’ best-selling book, Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain, became famous for one exercise in which the reader, like most of us conventionally unable to draw or sketch with any accuracy, was given the portrait or photograph of a face to draw — upside down! The amazing success of this exercise, in getting non-artists like you or me to draw that face accurately and well, results from that upside-down requirement that defeats our usual shortcut notions that a nose has to go thus and so and a chin like this and an eye like that… Normally we can’t draw because we attempt to draw by looking at our shortcuts and stock responses, not at our actual perceptions.

What happens in either case — brainstorming, Betty Edward’s upside-down picture, or Socratic Method — is that we are forced to dig past our usual shortcuts in thought and perception, past all the stock and trite responses we’ve accumulated around almost every event or situation, and to probe deeply into our own richer and subtler awarenesses, which is where the meaningful is to be found, found in every one of us!

Each of us needs to be drawn out at length, in depth, on matter after matter after matter. Each of us is truly a window on infinity, once we can get past our shortcut stock stuff and start paying attention to and responding to our actual perceptions and first-hand awarenesses.

6.  The type of question to ask

Whether for classrooms or boardrooms, friends, employees, family members, learners or yourself:  the quality of the Socratic questions asked and tasks set which require digging in order to make successful response — the quality of the question or issue-target is vital:

What is it that you want the other person or persons to reinforce in their efforts to answer?

What type of awareness they will reinforce in themselves depends upon which of these or similar types of questions and issues are asked.

Which of these types of awareness do you want to reinforce?

  • Rote short-term memory?
  • Long-term memory?
  • Quick performance, whether shallow or accurate and in depth?
  • Personal relevance?
  • Appreciation (of just what, precisely)?
  • Modeling after example? (And is the example you intend the one that will be modeled after?)
  • Digging out from reference resources?
  • Observational skills?
  • Understanding?
  • Ability to correlate data?
  • Ability to interpolate and intuit or create?
  • Ability to apply?
  • Ability to generalize and encode into larger patterns?
  • Self-critical perfecting and polishing?
  • Open-ended exploration?

Which of these and other areas of awareness do you want the other person (or your student) to examine and respond from, so as to reinforce?

— And what questions are being asked of students now? What is it in them that, at best, their struggle to answer them is reinforcing in them? Usually, only the first type above, rote short-term memory. To this writer, having that be the main type of question is unconscionable.

— And how many students get adequate opportunity to answer in any depth even the questions that are asked of them? Hardly ever any.

So we wonder why schools are getting such poor results. And the main efforts to reform the schools aren’t touching the main cause, so how successful will these be in curing problems even if such reforms break through into acceptance?

In most boardrooms and executive sessions and training rooms, between lecture and film clips one has to wait his turn with 30-40 others in the group to make shallow rote responses to usually trivial questions.

How, with 40 others or 400 others in the group, can EVERY participant be drawn out at length and in depth, beyond all those stock trite responses and perceptual-conceptual shortcuts? How can EVERYone get enough Socratic experience and air time to unlock their potentials?

For an easy, modern way to apply full Socratic Method to even hundreds of participants or students at one time, with even but one instructor — and to have that one instructor much less pressured and less heavily worked than he or she is now — see Dynamic Format.

Here, Dynamic Format and Winsights Nos. 3357 and this one make up a pretty complete self-taught curriculum for anyone wishing to improve the group sessions they are conducting.

Especially, examine the above fifteen or so types of questions to ask — them, or yourself — Socratically, so that the types of awareness you DO want to reinforce and develop will be dug into and reinforced in the struggle to answer.


In open-ended exploration, I warmly invite and cordially urge you, Gentle Reader, after examining those questions, to do either a Freenoting or a Windtunnel in rapid-flow torrential response, expressing everything that comes to mind regardless, but especially in this context. Do this with sufficient flow and vigor and without pausing or hesitating, and you will discover far more in what YOU say than anything I’ve said here. You might begin with the question, “Why am I asking you to do a Freenote or Windtunnel on this topic?”  and flow on from there.