Learn How to Ask Good Questions (by looking at art)
We spend our days asking questions, but most of us never actually spend any time honing our questioning skills.
For some people questioning comes easily. But for the majority of us, we are not asking enough questions AND we’re not phrasing them in the best way.
I feel we’re missing a trick here. The ability to ask good questions is one of the most useful skills you can have. You can instantly engage people, provoke curiosity, find out what people already know and solve problems.
The good news is that we can all become better questioners with time and practice. AND, interestingly, the more questions we ask, the more we improve our emotional intelligence, which in turn makes us better questioners. A win-win in my book.
But how can you become a better questioner?
If you Google ‘how to improve my questioning skills’ the first results you will see are lists or tips. Lists of ‘things you can do to improve your questioning skills. Lists are all well and good (I created one last week) and you may retain some of the suggestions, but they don’t actually get you to sit down and WORK on your questioning skills, do they?
A what to do/what not to do list is not going to be of practical help to you in creating, generating, sorting and evaluating better questions.
Or you can take a course, but after another quick search, my thoughts were confirmed – most of them seemed incredibly dull and focused on taxonomies of questions or questioning for certain situations (sales pitches). There has to be another way…
Artworks are great things to inquire about
So, enter artworks. I’ve been using artworks for years to improve my questioning skills. I’m not an ‘expert questioner’ by any means and have found that this is a skill that I have had to consistently work at to improve. By using artwork, I really enjoy the process too.
I believe that anyone can look at and discuss art – you don’t need to be an art historian and you certainly don’t need to have any prior experience or art training to look at a painting (in fact, prior knowledge and experience can sometimes be a hindrance and can colour your objectivity). I use artworks as visual information that helps me to brainstorm, re-word and improve my questions.
Artworks (and objects) provide an engaging and focused way to work on your questioning skills, because they:
We don’t lose the ability to ask questions, we just don’t use or ‘exercise’ it as much. Further on in life people tend to expect answers rather than questions.
We know that artworks, objects and artefacts have the power to inspire, provoke curiosity and interest. I challenge you to think of a time you have stood in front of an artwork and no questions sprang to mind. That never happens. Looking at artworks inspires reams of questions that get more complex the longer you spend time with it.
You can use an artwork to brainstorm or ‘question-storm’ a list of questions you might have about it. Go for a large volume of questions and don’t judge any of them at this point. Use the artwork as a springboard for inquiry. You can then take that list and sort it, improve the questions or just star the ones that are the most interesting.
Help us observe better
Most people have heard of ‘déjà vu’(the feeling you get when you experience something that you’ve already experienced) but few people have heard of it’s less well-known cousin vujà de –something familiar viewed with a fresh view or from a different perspective.
If you take a work of art, you can literally view it from all angles – we can zoom in and carefully look for small details and we can back up and view from far away to get the whole picture. We can look at things differently by literally changing our positioning.
We can also look at an artwork from other perspectives – and this inspires questions and lines of inquiry. For example, the artist’s perspective (‘what might his/her intentions have been?’), the curator (‘what decisions might have driven him/her to choose this particular work to display?’) or the museum (‘what role might this work play in the overall storyline of this exhibition?’).
Many artworks force us to confront our assumptions and offer us possibilities to generate new ways of thinking about something. You can avoid looking at the title of the work until an opportune moment arises and then pause before asking yourself ‘Does this make you think differently in any way?’ You can also think about ‘stepping inside’ the perspective of a person, object or element in a piece of artwork and consider what that person/object might feel, believe or indeed care about.
Provide a stimulus
If you want to ask more questions and get better at formulating them, you need something to wonder about. Artworks are the perfect stimulus or ‘provocation’ for promoting inquiry. In choosing an artwork, you want something that is complex enough to foster inquiry, but not so complicated that it bewilders you (or everyone else). The artwork should appeal to you, spark your interest or have a connection or meaning for you. Choose something that is detailed and deserves close-looking or something that you find puzzling or raises lots of questions.
NB: You don’t need to know anything about the artwork or the artist.
And finally, looking at art can supercharge your creativity, something that is crucial for generating good questions. Thinking about art by yourself or discussing art in a group encourages you to develop original thoughts, brainstorm options, problem-solve and use your imagination. Looking at and discussing art flexes your creativity-muscles by encouraging multiple interpretations and diverse ways of looking at things.
So, are you ready to develop and improve your questioning skills through looking at art? Next week I’ll discuss different ways you can use artworks to improve your questioning skills.
If you’d like to be taken step-by-step through the process of improving your technique with tools and exercises to help you consistently create, sort & evaluate your own brilliant questions, take my masterclass ‘The Art of Questioning’ in my membership programme. This class will equip you with a variety of techniques and skills that you can use to improve your questioning skills and techniques. Find out more about The Thinking Museum Membership below.
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