What We’re Reading – The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking


Last month, I wrote a blog about a book I was reading by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird, entitled “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.”  Since that blog was posted, we interviewed one of the authors, Ed Burger, on our “Join the Conversation” podcast (September 24th).

Today I’m writing one last blog about an interesting chapter from this book.

In case you haven’t read the book or the previous blog, this book is about the process of thinking, and the authors lay out their five elements for how we can all think more effectively.

The 3rd element is “Air,” or as the related chapter is entitled, “Creating Questions out of Thin Air / Be Your Own Socrates.”

So why, according to the authors, is creating questions out of thin air so important to thinking effectively?  Here are some highlights from this chapter:

  • You can be your own Socrates:  Socrates’ method of generating ideas was to challenge everyone he encountered with questions.  Lots of questions and many times tough ones. He even asked his enemies questions. The authors note that we would all be successful if only we could have our own personal Socrates with us at all times to prod us with questions.  What they conclude is:

 “In fact, such a 24/7 Socrates is possible, because you can generate your own questions that challenge your own assumptions and lead to insights.  You can become your own Socrates.”

  •  We incorrectly assume that it is in the answering of questions that we make progress:  Actually, creating the questions is just as important as answering them correctly. Why?  Because when you frame good questions, you get more focused on the right issues.  Asking yourself challenging questions can help you:
        • Reveal hidden assumptions.
        • Avoid bias.
        • Expose vagueness.
        • Identify errors.
        • Consider alternative

  • Even when you think you know the answer, ask “what if….?”: Don’t just wait for the moment when you don’t have anything to say to ask a question.  Even when you know the answer, ask, “What if….…?”  This discipline can enable you to see the world from a different perspective because you are challenging the status quo.  It forces you to think about the limits of your own understanding.

  •  Coming up with good questions can help you overcome your biases:  A habit of thinking individuals is to acknowledge their biases and intentionally overcome them.  Try arguing the other side.  Get in the habit of asking, “Do I really know?” And then refuse to accept assertions blindly.  You are the best authority on what you don’t understand. Get in the habit of asking how the issue looks from various viewpoints.

  • What’s the real question?: “Often the question that seems obvious may not be the question that leads to effective action.”  To be effective, the question must:
      • Lead to action and not be vague.
      • Clarify your understanding and focus your attention on features that matter.
      • Expose the real issue.

So, you really have to work hard to “improve” the question so that it becomes the real one and thus is effective.

So what can I learn from this chapter (see, I am asking myself questions)?  The authors teach us that asking the right questions can be an incredibly powerful way for us to understand and to learn.  It can provide us with insights we never thought about before.  As they conclude:  “Questions give us a breath of inspiration and insight; thus we associate the art of questioning with the element Air.”

So, what are the real questions you should be asking about your on-campus housing?  How can you learn to be your own Socrates?  Better yet, how you can you help your residents to be more effective thinkers by learning to be their own Socrates?  Would love to hear your questions!