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A True Leader Asks Real Questions

“The person who asks questions is more helpful than the person who offers advice.” – James Clear

I’ve recently had a conversation with a guy about how grateful I’m that I got to do engineering. This guy I had a conversation with was also trained as an engineer but later branched out into property investment space. We were appreciating how we were trained to think about the equations or formulas from the source or first principles. You would be given an equation and asked to derive it from first principles which helped us not just to memorize given equations, but to know where they come from. This truly had a huge impact in helping me formulate my thinking and approach towards life regarding questioning the source of things and beliefs about life instead of just swallowing whole everything presented to me.

It pains my heart to see smart people, more especially, those who are graduates from institutions of higher learning, having missed this questioning aspect. You come across so many people in workplaces and society in general, who are so protective of yesterday’s solutions and are stubbornly using them to solve today’s problems that require today’s fresh approach.

This questioning ability helped me transform from engineering which taught me about the mechanics of machines to the mechanics of the brain. The mechanics of machines is about understanding the insights, from first principles on how machines operate. This approach helps you to think rather than rushing to solve a problem whenever it arises. The mechanics of the brain on the other hand is about having insights on what really makes us think and behave the way we do.

The art of asking questions helps us unlock the brain. It helps us think beyond what we see. Of course, the quality of questions determines the quality of answers. Now, let’s get into the science or mechanics of asking questions.

What happens in the brain when you ask a question?

When you ask a question instead of giving the answer, the entire brain gets active as it reflects, releasing a neurochemical called serotonin (allowing it to relax). This encourages gathering intelligence from all areas of the brain, allowing for more insight than would happen if you provided solutions to others. Think of story- telling, if someone tells you a story uninterrupted until the end, you will definitely hear and somewhat understand the story. But, when they tell you a story and along the way, pause and ask you questions about what you think will happen next, this keeps you more engaged and trigger your thinking abilities rather than you receiving information all the way.

What part of the brain is engaged when questions are asked?

One of the parts of the brain that helps with this is called Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS is called the attention centre of the brain. This is part of the brain that gets activated when questions are asked and helps you find answers by gathering intelligence from all areas of the brain. This is the power we all have but do not exercise.

Now, for leaders in particular, let’s look at:

The Neuroscience of Asking Insightful Questions

As a leader, it’s important to know that when you solve problems for the people who report to you, you rob them the chance to do their own thinking.

We are taught and encouraged day-in and day-out to develop problem solving skills and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being good at problem solving. When you are a leader though, this very skill can easily get in the way of preventing the people you lead from learning and developing. When you solve problems for those you lead, their creativity becomes stunted and learning is stalled because those very smart people you lead don’t get to think on their own. Asking an insightful question instead helps them to focus on what they want to do and when that insight happens, they can move forward with clarity and commitment. There are plenty of reasons and benefits to ask questions like “What would you do?” or “What possibilities do you see here?” These are open-ended, thought-provoking questions, not solutions disguised as questions.  The most compelling reasons to ask rather than tell may be grounded in neuroscience.

Let me share with you from a neuroscience perspective a short version of what happens when you ask an insightful question.

Neuroplasticity: The first thing you need to know is that the brain isn’t hardwired like an electrical appliance. If it was, people would be stuck doing things the way they’ve always done them forever. Enter something called neuroplasticity, which means our brain can physically change to encourage creative thinking and new knowledge. The neurons can move into new locations in our brain when we learn. Questions can act as a catalyst for our brains to change and move forward with new insight.

Reflection: When you ask a question instead of giving an answer, the entire brain gets active as it reflects. New neuronal connections begin to be made as the brain moves closer to finding solutions.

When someone is stuck, ask an open-ended and insightful question. The brain becomes activated, and will find the best way to help it to discover the solution. And the funny thing is, it might be even better than one you would have thought of, brilliant.

Hellen Keller put it succinctly when she said, “A well-educated mind will always have more questions than answers.”

When you understand the mechanics of the brain that influence your thoughts, beliefs, behaviour and actions, you’ll be in a position to lead yourself and others in a most effective way. My Neuro-Talks, Neuro-Coaching and Neuro-Leadership interventions help leaders in organizations tap inside themselves and leverage their team’s collect genius to achieve peak performance.

Veli Ndaba is a Neuro-Conscious Leadership Speaker and Trainer, Life & Business Coach, Motivational Speaker and Author of four books (You Are Born to Win, Your Dream is Calling You and SWITCH ON! And Set Your Soul On Fire!), Newspaper Columnist and Entrepreneur. To book him to speak at your next event or to help you and your team unleash your greatness, contact him on, or +27 83 304 9773