The Art of Asking Questions
‘Questioning’ is an admirable trait, right? It brings to mind someone who isn’t happy with their current view of the world; someone who is always wanting to know more. So why is that honest questions are sometimes answered with outright hostility?
A sense that you’re not 100% sincere
Some people – intentionally or not – use questions as weapons to push someone into acknowledging the questioner’s own reality. Rather than being a sign of the questioner’s desire to be open-minded, they can be a signal that the questioner is feeling overly challenged and would like you to return to the party line, please, now.
Crafting answers can be hard work
Teaching is a difficult job. Figuring out exactly how to phrase something to make sure someone (potentially with a completely different learning style to your own) is hard work. It’s even more difficult when you’re trying to teach about something that is intensely personal and/or opens you to public criticism, abuse, and/or violence – like race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. The key take-away point here, though, is this: the mere act of asking a question requests that the answerer use their energy to respond to the questioner.
You’re not a child anymore
Kids need to ask questions. All but the grumpiest adults understand that. We understand that a 5-year-old child has very few resources on hand apart from the people surrounding them. So adults will often stop and answer a child’s questions to the best of their ability. Adults, on the other hand, often have many, many resources at our disposal. We have the internet, libraries, knowledgeable friends, expert consultants, university and TAFE courses, Siri and OK Google on our smartphones… and a host more. I tend to respond differently to children and adults simply because I assume that the adult a) has resources other than me and b) is choosing not to use them. Sometimes that assumption is wildly wrong. Most of the time it’s correct, and the person has chosen the lazy option.
You’ve just displayed a prejudice of some sort
Most prejudices are inbuilt, and a lot of us don’t realise we even have them. Ask a roomful of average people if they’re racist, and 99% will generally say “NO!”. But the vast majority of that 99% will actually say and do racist things without realising it. Likewise, other prejudices you have against people – prejudices you probably don’t realise you have – often come out when you ask them questions about their life.
How to ask questions
So let’s just say that I have a question that you want to ask someone. What should I do? Here’s a quick, general list of things I should ask myself first:
- Why am I asking this question?
- How might the person feel about hearing this question?
- Is this question respectful?
- Is this question important for my or their safety?
- Do I need to know the answer?
- Can I learn the answer to this question in any other way?
- Has this person invited my questioning?
- Is my timing appropriate?
- Does my phrasing expose my opinion that they are wrong/different/not as good as me?
Having a good hard look at our motivations and unspoken assumptions before asking questions of those around us doesn’t just decrease the number of hostile responses – it also helps to improve the lives of those around us… just a little bit.
Like to know more?
Here’s a great articles that might help you get a wider perspective: Carly Findlay talks about the questions people ask her.