Illustration: Lincoln Agnew; globe: NASA; woman: Blue Jean Images/Getty Images

As a kid, I loved to cross-examine my parents about everything: why we ate liver, why my mom thought Ronald Reagan would make a good president, why my dad thought he'd make a lousy one. I never ran out of questions, which is why my father told me I should go to law school. Now I teach law, and I still have a lot of questions.

Being inquisitive is essential for a lawyer, but I believe it's crucial to success in just about every area of life. The right questions help teachers spark curiosity, give leaders a way to find solutions, and make us better friends, parents, and partners.

Sometimes we're afraid to ask because we don't want to admit what we don't know. I see this in the classroom all the time— yet it never fails that when one person finally says "Okay, this might be dumb, but...," everyone else starts nodding, as if to say "Thank goodness." Next time you're in that situation, be the person who asks. You're almost certainly not the only one who's wondering.

Instead of worrying about having all the answers, I'd like to suggest that we spend more time thinking about asking good questions. By that I mean honest ones, posed because we are genuinely seeking to know. This could be as simple as saying to a friend, "Really, how are you doing?" Or asking someone in trouble, "How can I help?" This question acknowledges that the person needs assistance, signals that you're willing to offer it, and humbly suggests that she knows best what she needs. Contrast "How can I help?" with the polite thing we often say: "Let me know if I can help." It's the rare person who will come back with "Actually, you can."

We're living in a time when there aren't as many honest questions as we might hope for, especially in public conversation. Often we're only partially paying attention to someone's response because we're busy thinking of what we want to say next. Or we're making statements disguised as questions, hoping to entrap the other person. But when we dismiss as ignorant those who disagree with us, we keep ourselves in the dark.

One of the best questioners I've ever witnessed is former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. When he questioned lawyers, he was never bombastic or intent on making his own arguments. Time and again, he would respectfully say, "Counselor, could you clarify your point?" More often than any of his colleagues, he would break open the case by finding the single question at the heart of it. Making the effort to hear someone else's viewpoint might not change our minds, but it can more fully inform our own judgment and help us better understand one another.

It's just as important to listen carefully when we ask questions of ourselves. For instance, "What truly matters?" This is a powerful question, but only if it's an honest one. You may believe your family matters most, but if you look at how you're spending your time, you might discover that you're not living in a way that's consistent with that answer. We find out what we really value in the daily decisions that we make, so we might do well to stop occasionally and respectfully ask ourselves: What truly matters? Asked regularly and fearlessly, it is the single question that will help you get to the heart of your life.


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