The Big Questions

Looking back over the thirty thousand or more current affairs interviews I’ve conducted over the course of my career, I mark the beginning of my professional and personal maturity at the point where I began to understand how language can be fashioned to manipulate and distort people’s representations of reality.

As a young journalist in the 1970’s fronting sausage-factory current affairs shows, churning out interviews which frequently had the uniformity and substance of a supermarket saveloy, I felt extravagantly inadequate to the task of bringing so-called opinion-makers to task. At times I found their rhetoric bewildering and intimidating. On other occasions, the sheer onslaught of verbiage took me to a point of stupefaction where questions and, in fact, words, no longer came.

Being left speechless by the silken words of puffed-up public figures wasn’t an experience I particularly relished. This was especially so in live interviews. Their triumph and my imagined humiliation was a very public affair. I soon tired of turning the colour of a baboon’s backside each and every time my inadequacies as a questioner rendered me impotent and embarrassed.

I knew I was being led a merry chase, but couldn’t identify the devices being used to deflect my occasionally incisive questions. My education, training and life experience hadn’t prepared me for this seemingly never-ending queue of absolutists ejaculating their ideologically ‘perfect’ models for a better and worse society, and getting away with it.

I became pre-occupied, some would say obsessed, with investigating how to peel away the layers of grandiloquence, how to respond to obfuscation, how to detect the lie behind the smug reply and how to catch the sleight of mouth experts in the act.

I also discovered that I didn’t know very much at all of what I didn’t know about questioning and language. What’s more, I found my peers didn’t know and my superiors didn’t know. The few books about the craft of interviewing I could lay my hands on deepened the mystery. Seemingly, the authors didn’t know either. The consensus advice was that listening was the key. But, listening for what? “Well, stuff that is important” was the closest I ever came to a straight answer. I was in a loop where my search for answers ultimately led me back to my original question. And that’s where I was on every occasion I wasn’t somewhere else.

I had to fossick around for the right questions to ask about questions. It felt more like scavenging for treasures at the local rubbish dump than launching into a new and exciting inquiry. My initial discoveries gave rise to more questions and some more useful answers. Since then I’ve trudged, crawled and frolicked through magnificent bodies of thought and material in my own personal quest to become a expert questioner.

Fortunately, I’ve had a ready supply of unknowing interviewees (thousands, in fact) on which to experiment. This minor fixation with questions and language has embellished immeasurably my life experiences and enhanced my performance as an expert questioner. More than anything else I know, my study of how we ascribe meanings to things with words and symbols - and how those meanings can either enrich or impoverish people’s views of the world - has opened my mind to a world that would have been closed to me, had I not taken up the inquiry. .

In my long study of charismatic communicators one things stands taller than all else - the quality and flexibility of their thinking and their abilities to question the status quo, received wisdom and so-called common sense. Many charismatic communicators have through intent and circumstance sharpened their thinking skills, often becoming masters of what I call 'radial logic' in place of the dogged pursuit of the mythical rock of truth. Many appear to have risen above the dim-witted thinking and rhetoric of the 'Warriors of the Word' in the often-phoney public debates over the issues of the day.

Quality thinking is not driven by answers, but by the mental discipline implicit in asking quality questions. This is where the best of charismatic communicators have an edge over many of their contemporaries.

To understand the real subtance of any issue, we need to understand what questions do that stock answers don’t. Questions drive thinking, which, in turn, produce more questions, which drive more thinking. Answers, on the other hand, are things that tend to have a completeness about them, are usually taught to us or created by others trying to manipulate us.

This is the secret to many of the successes of charismatic communicators: they question the status quo, they explore fundamental questions that have been buried by an avalanche of 'correct' answers and they bring those questions to the surface.

In the ensuing posts on this blog, I will explore in more detail some of the mental models of questioning I have modelled from observing charismatic figures.

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