Art of questioning (கேள்வி அறிதல்)

In management, Peter Drucker is held in high regard due to his knack of asking probing questions to gain insights. This reminds me of Dharumi in the film திருவிளையாடல் (Thiruvilaiyaadal). When Shiva (played by the legendary Shivaji) asks Dharumi (played by the versatile comedian Nagesh) whether he shall ask questions or not (கேள்விகளை நீ கேட்கிறாயா அல்லது நான் கேட்கட்டுமா?), immediately responds that he is only capable of asking questions and not providing answers (எனக்கு கேட்க மட்டும் தான் தெரியும்)! Little does he know the power of asking the right questions! The scene starts at 5:05 in the clip below.

While there are several great literary works in Thamizh, the state government of Tamilnadu has picked திருக்குறள் (Thirukkural) by திருவள்ளுவர் (Thiruvalluvar) as the symbol of Thamizh literature, so much so that there is a big memorial in the shape of a chariot in Chennai called Valluvar Kottam and the kurals themselves are inscribed in all government buses, which was a good thing because you had to memorize at least ten of these for exams in middle school!

Kurals or couplets themselves are interesting in a literary sense. Each couplet is written in two lines totaling seven words, typically broken into 4-3. Estimated to be written around 50BC by a Jain monk, the couplets have a spiritual tone but does not emphasize a specific religion. Totaling 1,330 in all, they are grouped into Personal (அகத்துப்பால்), Business (பொருட்பால்), and Pleasure (காமத்துப்பால்), with many subcategories (10 couplets) within each covering a wide range of topics.

Speaking of which, there is one subcategory specifically assigned for questioning (and correspondingly, listening to the responses).

செல்வத்துள் செல்வம் செவிச் செல்வம் அச்செல்வம்
செல்வத்துள் எல்லாம் தலை

Selvathul selvam sevich chelvam achelvam
selvathul ellAm thalai

Translation: No art is greater than the art of questioning (and listening to responses).

The chapter then expands on the various aspects and attributes of good questioning skills. Here is one that caught our attention more than others:

நுணங்கிய கேள்வியர் அல்லார் வணங்கிய
வாயினர் ஆதல் அரிது

Nunangiya kelviyar allAr vanangiya
vAyinar Adhal aridhu

Translation: Those who do not know how to ask nuanced questions will not know how to talk humbly.

This is somewhat equivalent of the proverb “empty vessels makes more noise” (நிறைகுடம் தளும்பாது) – one who knows more, talks less!

This becomes all the more relevant in consulting – regardless of expertise, what is valued more is the type of questions we ask, the relevancy to the situation, and whether it elicits the right insights.

Recent events in Tamilnadu (untimely demise of the Chief Minister) has raised many questions in the minds of the public, though no good answers seem to be forthcoming. While the events that unfolded seem to indicate some level of conspiracy, the unquestioned acceptance of such events by everyone involved – by the current ministers or the opposition, is surprising.

Maybe for once, the politicians who have never heeded Thiruvalluvar’s words, actually listened to one:

பிழைத்து உணர்ந்தும் பேதைமை சொல்லார் இழைத்து உணர்ந்து
ஈண்டிய கேள்வி யவர்

Pizhaithu unarndhum pEdhaimai sollAr izhaithu unarndhu
Indiya kElvi yavar

Translation: Wise men who understand the nuances of asking questions know when to keep their mouth shut and not ask questions even if they know something is wrong.

Maybe the politicians know it’s better not to ask questions for their own welfare!

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