Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

A couple of weeks ago, I spent time with a group of leaders in Singapore working on how to form better questions as part of a workshop on leading with agility. I returned home through Tokyo, which meant that I arrived in Dallas two hours earlier on the same day than when I departed Japan. You would think that after years of international travel, I would no longer be entertained by the idea of arriving earlier than I departed. “What happened to those two hours?” I thought when I landed in Dallas. Of course the question can’t be answered because it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. However, asking myself the question got me thinking about nonsense, which in turn got me thinking about Lewis Carroll.

In Chapter Seven of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, after some back and forth about whether there is room at the table for Alice to join the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the Hatter poses the question, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” The precocious Alice is eager to work out the riddle, but gets caught up in the chaotic tea party conversation. Later, when the Hatter asks Alice about the riddle, she admits that she has not worked it out and asks the Hatter for the answer. He tells her that he does not have the slightest idea*.

Some nonsense questions amuse us in the same way we might be amused by the charming innocence of a child’s question. Decades before Bill Cosby shocked and disappointed a whole generation, my friends and I spent hours memorizing his routines. I can still picture the cover of his album, “Why is there Air?” Cosby’s question is elegant, simple and nonsensical. Asking, “Why is there Air?” and “What happened to the two hours I lost during my twelve hour flight?” indicate that the person asking the question is either confused or trying to be funny.

Like Lewis Carroll, I’m a fan of wordplay, puns and riddles. I pay close attention to how people express themselves looking for interesting or clever ways to interpret a turn of phrase. It turns out, not everyone delights in my attempts at wit. What I imagine to be an endearing habit quickly becomes obnoxious if I’m not careful.

The Unstuck Minds Method is based on the idea that you can tell a lot about how people think by paying attention to the questions they ask. The key to helping people explore the thinking behind their choice of question is not to place too much emphasis on their choice of words. Consultants should not engage with a philosophical or lawyerly mindset. Philosophers worship clarity. Lawyers weaponize clarity. Consultants and coaches should focus on constructing meaning, not deconstructing meaning.

Don’t focus on what the question means, focus on what the person means by asking it.

As an example, when a client frames a consulting request as, “How do we get people to be more accountable?” I need to let go of my reflex to dismiss the question as nonsense and instead, help my client clarify the unexpressed need. I might take an appreciative approach and say, “Tell me a story about someone acting with accountability to help me picture what you want more people to do.” Or, I might offer options to get the conversation moving, “When you say ‘accountable,’ is it more about keeping commitments or not blaming others or maybe it’s simply about complying with directives?”

I don’t ask questions to hear answers. I ask questions to summon insights. Answers are dead ends. Insights open doors. Sometimes people look forward to opening doors and sometimes opening a door can be scary. If the mind is stuck, then summoning an insight will be consequential. Not everyone is eager to chase a white rabbit down a hole without a companion.

 

*After the publication of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was pestered to provide a response to the Mad Hatter’s riddle. Here’s a blog post describing Carroll’s response.

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