Utilizing Doubt

You’re hearing an idea out, you’re getting a feel for the argument, and then the “wait, what?!” feeling comes on. Doubt is important, and how we use it is even more so.

Matthew Strom in his essay, “The Role of Doubt In Design,” says that while it’s important to acknowledge uncertainty, doubt isn’t always the right mindset.” When a client says something crazy, or when we’re hearing an idea that catches us off guard, we can use Strom’s mindset guidance to our advantage.

As we take in information, we first should consider if we’re “the answer person” or “the question person” in the relationship. A manager might be presenting an idea and looking for us to have questions, while a client may be offering a concept and just want answers. We can ask ourselves if the person is looking to explore the evidence deeper or just wants a clear response. We should know what the stakes are too. Within relationships, there’s a difference between water-cooler opinions and boardroom statements. Our role and the attached expectations matter.

If questions are appropriate, we should consider how and where they can be most constructive.* There are methods to target what needs clarifying to move a conversation forward. If we are exploring, we may want to explore the borders of the idea before we start to go deeper. If we are looking to bring someone else towards an answer, the Socratic method is powerful. Being constructive means having an idea of not just our roles, but the direction of the conversation.

Last but not least, questions should always come from a place of genuine curiosity. We are questioning with a sense of purpose. We are authentically interested. We are defining criteria, testing hypothesis, and looking to make mutual progress. Good questioning keeps both parties on the same side of the table.

Doubt has a natural role in clarifying arguments and making progress. Professionals know how to use doubt to move a conversation forward together. Whether we are solving a problem as a service or designing products, there is value in purposeful questioning. Progress depends on it.

*See Strom’s chart available here

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