The words “are there any questions?” usually spell the kiss of death for open debate.  However, last week, while on my way to a symposium on the green economy, I got chatting to the communications director of a petro-chemical company who told me a true story that happened to him at the previous event.

He had been on the podium taking questions from all kinds of industry experts when a young student (probably no older than 16 or 17) asked “How does it feel to be on the executive board of the world’s number one polluter?” A little taken aback the communications director answered the student as openly and honestly as he could.  However when it was over he was surprised to see the student approach him “I am sorry for my question” the student said.

“Why are you apologising?” the Communications Director asked. “Because my friends told me that my question was far too direct and out of place and that I had probably ruined my chances of ever working for your organization.”  “And where are your friends now?” the communications director replied “I would very much like to speak with them.”  So the student took him over to the corner of the reception area where they were hanging out, pretending not to be observing the encounter.

“Guys, good to see you here” the communications director began, “if I can ever give you some advice it would be this: never, never be afraid to ask a question, especially an important one that needs to be answered. Your friend showed great courage today.  He, more than anyone, opened up a very meaningful debate; the likes of which had been absent until he spoke up.”

This year’s symposium turned out to be just like the communication director’s previous experience. It was the young people from all around the world that were asking the best questions.  They were extremely thoughtful and went straight to the point of the debate bringing another dimension and perspective to it.

But this got me thinking: why is it that when we get ‘older’ the fear of looking stupid tends to outweigh our desire to stand up and ask questions?  Or is it that we simply have no questions left to ask? Either of the two possibilities leaves me depressed.  Even taking into account the tiny minority of people that do ask questions, these are mostly asked without any real desire for an answer but are more utterances intended to show off their own personal opinions. 

Once again, thank goodness we can rely on the younger generation to put us oldies in our place. The only question left open for me is, how can we prevent them from losing their passion for the truth or will they, like us, have to depend on the next generation to keep them in their place? Let’s hope not.

Have a good week,