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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Question me an answer...or the art of asking good questions

Betty Firth
Posted 6/13/24

In a previous column I suggested that if people everywhere would improve their listening skills, salted with a bit of compassion, that one change could enhance peace and understanding around the …

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Question me an answer...or the art of asking good questions

In a previous column I suggested that if people everywhere would improve their listening skills, salted with a bit of compassion, that one change could enhance peace and understanding around the world. (See Timberjay Archives, 5/4/17, “Listen Up. It’s Good for All of Us.”) Today I would contend that the ability to ask good questions is an excellent companion skill.
If you are one of those seemingly rare people who are good at asking questions, you have probably experienced the frustration of doing most of the work in a conversation. You may have wished people would polish up their questioning skills.
Most of us like to talk about ourselves, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a topic of interest. Young children ask questions all the time, quite naturally. They are discovering the world around them, curious to gather information to broaden their vistas and stash for future navigation. Somewhere along the way, as we accumulate years and information, we may decide we’ve got the answers and even become quite pig-headed about it. This is observable in two-year-olds, oldsters, and almost all teenagers. 
As adults, we might keep questioning as we continue to try to figure out our internal and external worlds unless we get stuck at the obstinate stage, thinking our learning is complete once we reach some age or level of education. I think the key preventative for that unfortunate condition of willful ignorance is curiosity. If we remain curious about the world around us and the diverse people we meet, how could we possibly keep from wondering and wanting more? Irrepressible children and adults can be annoying if you’re quite private or just very busy at the moment, but generally, I think people appreciate the show of interest. 
Depending on our ethnic and cultural surroundings, we might have been taught that it’s rude to ask questions. In the days of Jane Austen novels, young ladies and gentlemen were brought up to discuss only “safe” topics such as the weather, but even then to avoid strongly-expressed opinions. “It seems we may have a bit of rain today.” “I believe you’re right. Yes, quite so.” Although we are freer with our strongly-voiced opinions these days, things haven’t changed all that much. Even though we have sophisticated weather forecasts available at our fingertips, we still rely on weather talk to provide conversational glue, and living in Minnesota provides a bottomless source of conjecture and comment. With our weather apps, we can dive deeply beyond temps and rain possibilities, covering wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure, and chances of tornadoes. Years ago, when I did contract work in various Twin Cities’ corporate settings, I often wondered how the environment would be altered if weather talk were banned. Unpredictable weather provided an endless supply of brief exchanges as we passed in the hallways, providing the dance steps to conversational waltzes with ever-changing partners throughout the day. Skilled dancers make it through multiple exchanges daily, keeping their work face facades carefully in place, never revealing anything about themselves nor learning anything about their co-workers.
The trick is to move beyond that level of exchange if you want to foster more interesting conversations and relationships. For that certain segment of the population coming of age during the pandemic, the isolation from workplaces or classrooms may have stunted or delayed their conversational repertoire, for they didn’t even have the benefit of anonymous weather talk practice. I have read that in some business settings, management has offered mini classes to young employees on how to have conversations with co-workers. I expect that might be more necessary in the engineering and IT departments than in the marketing and HR realms. However, the lack of skill or reluctance to ask good questions is certainly evident across the generations.
I am curious about people’s stories, so asking questions usually comes easily to me, including follow-up queries to go deeper. I have said before that three words people particularly yearn to hear are, “Tell me more.” If anyone does find interested questioning intrusive, their aversion is not usually hard to discern, and you can easily sidestep, returning to the likelihood of rain.
In conversations with family and close friends, good questions can open up the opportunity to address more personal or difficult topics, although I have to admit I have had little success in this lifelong quest with my brother. With Aspergian tendencies, he often holds forth in excruciating detail, dominating conversations, seemingly oblivious to the other person or people present. As I don’t like to rudely interrupt, my own desire to show interest is dulled, and he finds my requests to show more interest through questions annoying. He has learned in his older years that his patterns of TMI (too much information) are not conducive to building relationships, and I have learned to be both more accepting and more assertive.
I have also come to realize that he has a lot of company. I am regularly amazed at how not only are people not asking questions, they’re not listening to what the other person is saying, often with minds abuzz with their own thoughts. Most baffling are those who repeat what they just said as if they’re not even listening to themselves. I can’t offer a whole lot of advice for that except to say, “Stop doing that and listen up!” It does take a little practice. But, having some good questions at hand will facilitate conversational flow. Here are some good ones, appropriate for beginner and advanced conversations: “Would you say more about that?” “No kidding?!” “You don’t say!” “How do you feel about that?” “And what happened next?” “Could you explain that?” “I’d love to hear more about that.” “Wow!”
Until you have a few memorized, you might want to carry a small, discreet index card, or write a couple favorites on your hand. 
I don’t feel that I have irrefutable depths of wisdom, but I do have confidence that the well of questions is bottomless. When I’m wise enough to dip into the well, it does hamper the know-it-all who resides in my brain, while allowing space to learn something new.
Burt Bacharach/Hal David song from 1973 movie “Lost Horizon” performed by Bobby Van