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Lateral thinking puzzles: Why you need to ask more questions

Lateral thinking puzzles: Why you need to ask more questions

Another puzzle in this series to test your lateral thinking skills! Paul Sloane shares a brainteaser designed to make you ask more questions

We all learn by asking questions. It’s the simplest and most effective way of finding out new information and deducing what your next move should be when faced with a challenge. But most people ask fewer questions as they get older and more experienced. 

Why is this? Well, some people assume they know all the main things they need to know and do not bother to ask more, or think they are so busy that they do not pause to ask questions before rushing straight to action. They cling to established beliefs and remain certain in their assumptions—yet the world is constantly changing around them. Things that were true yesterday are no longer true today, and they might be trying to solve the wrong problem.

"Most people ask fewer questions as they get older and more experienced"

Other are afraid that by asking questions they will look weak, ignorant, or unsure. They prefer to appear decisive and sure of themselves. But smart people know that asking questions is a sign of strength, not weakness. 

Lateral thinkers never stop asking questions because they know that this is the best way to gain deeper insights. They are always curious and ask a great many types of questions—smart questions, silly questions, basic questions, childlike questions. They check their assumptions by asking questions.

So, as a test, here is a lateral thinking puzzle that requires you to ask more questions to get the correct answer. 


A little girl was told by her parents to never open the cellar door, or she would see something she was not supposed to see. One day, while her parents were out, she opened the cellar door. 

What did she see?

With this type of puzzle there is not enough information to deduce the answer, so you have to ask questions of someone who knows. They can give yes or no answers only. What questions would you ask with this puzzle, and what assumptions are you making?

Think like a child

In 1970, Roger Hargreaves’ 6-year-old son Adam asked his father a question. It was a question that only a child could ask; no adult would ever conceive of it. Adam said, "Daddy, what does a tickle look like?"

In response Hargreaves, a cartoonist, drew a picture of a round orange blob with a face and long rubbery arms. It became the central character in Hargreaves’ first book, Mr Tickle. He had difficulty finding a publisher willing to take on the work but eventually the book was published and went on to be the start of the Mr Men series of books which have sold over 90 million copies. They are favourites of children all over the world.

"Be childlike, ask more questions, and really challenge your assumptions"

Children learn by asking questions. According to a report in the Independent children ask their parents some 73 questions a day, many of which the parents struggle to answer. Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays Group, believes that adults ask around 20 questions per day. Children ask questions to learn about and understand the world but according to the Independent article a child’s inquisitiveness peaks at age four and then declines.

So how can you improve how you tackle these puzzles? Be childlike, ask more questions, and really challenge your assumptions.

Answer to the puzzle

What about the little girl who opened the cellar door? She saw for the first time sunlight, trees and flowers. She had been kept all her life in the cellar. 

Most people assume that you open a cellar door to look down into the cellar so they start in the wrong place to solve the problem and their questions do not test this assumption.

Paul Sloane is a leading speaker and best-selling author of lateral thinking and innovation books, with his new book Lateral Thinking for Every Day available to purchase on January 3rd, 2023 (Kogan Page, £12.99)

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