We’re curious, right? When you have a story to tell, it’s because you were curious about one or many things and dug deep to see what you could find. Then, the “aha” moment, the ephiphany, or even the gradual understanding comes and we want to share it. It all started with asking the right questions.
What goes into asking a good question?
I studied with a woman who I think is the best facilitator I’ve ever seen in any field. She is sweet-natured, smart, and deeply caring. She actually listens for the question underneath what you are saying. I spent five years learning from her and every time I’m in a situation where I’m holding a conversation either with a friend or leading a group, I think of Kathy on some subtle level.
Knowing how to ask good questions is a skill you can learn, but it often happens by osmosis when we watch someone who is skilled at it. There are ways to redirect or reposition what someone tells you to bring out the broader picture. There are key phrases to go deeper. But underneath how we ask a question, there must be a swelling curiosity to know the subject or person you are exploring.
Curiosity can come from ego. For example, I want to know more about you so I know better how to control or manipulate you.
Curiosity can come from compassion. For example, I want to be a mirror for you so I ask questions that help you to reflect because I care about your experience.
Curiosity can come from no place other than the desire to understand better. Sometimes, there is an agenda. Sometimes, there isn’t. Learning for the sake of learning is kind of human. Since I was a young girl, I just wanted to know. Everything. My childhood was spent absorbing World Book Encyclopedias. Yep, I was the kid whose mom told her to put away the encyclopedia when I was done and I constantly had to tell her I was never done. All I wanted was to know, deeply, intimately every last detail of every last thing. A to Z. And not just to read about it, but to understand it. I feel pretty much the same about people and animals.
So, that right there is the key – to want to understand.
Remember in high school when you learned about the 5 W’s? Who, where, when, why, what. And then there was the 1 H. How. We applied those six questions as a place to begin writing an article or a paper. Most of us start wearing out all the adults when we are a tender age of 2 or 3 with “WHY? Why? But why?”
Then somewhere along the way, we start to judge the response and things get tangled up for pretty much the rest of our days. “Why” turns into “how could you?” or “what were you thinking?” Not the most helpful questions.
Let’s get back to curiosity and the desire to understand. If I want to know something about you, is it better for me to sit back and listen, or should I banter back and forth with my own related tales? It really depends on the situation. A good question, or a good related tale, should reflect that you listened deeply and heard what the person was saying.
Is there someone you think asks good questions? What do they do, how do they do it, and most importantly, why do they do it? Is it out of concern, the desire to control, plain curiosity, or to be a cosmic mirror? Do they ask good questions about a subject but not good questions about other people, or vice-versa?
Let’s look at both. Questions we ask others, and questions we ask about a subject.
To be a good listener, there are a few things to consider.
- Don’t be afraid to peek around the corner, or poke a little at tender spots. But don’t knock the wind out of them. Whether it’s a conversation or an interview or acting as a confidante, be compassionate and curious but don’t bludgeon.
- If you are asking the questions, keep the focus on the other person as much as possible. I tend to want people to find me relatable, so I chum them up with a story, when really they are sharing to be heard or understood.
- It’s okay to allow space around a question, to give the person time to gather their thoughts.
- A classic technique is to play back to them what you heard them say. “What I heard you say is….” and put it into your own words as well as theirs. “Is that what you meant?”
What if you aren’t listening to someone, but exploring a subject to write about?
How do you form good questions in order to learn and share about a subject?
People who are fascinated with history often are trying to learn how to do better today. Others romanticize the past and don’t go deep. The reality is that for all time, people get out of bed, put on their britches, and do something. They hurt, laugh, cry, smell, sweat, poop, care. They feel the whole spectrum of emotions at some point. It doesn’t matter if you were born in 52 AD or 2052 AD. Go deep.
It doesn’t matter if it is history, science, religion, culture, society, business and economy, or how ants keep coming in to your kitchen.
- Allow time to reflect on what you study so you can figure out the next best question to ask of it. Are you asking questions of a culture, a person, a theory? That’s going to require you to reflect. If you aren’t going to reflect, it is simple book knowledge. Is that what you want? Or do you want it to touch your life in a deeper, more direct way?
- Go past the surface. Don’t just go to Wikipedia to look up a subject and stop there. What does it bring up for you that needs further exploration? Go to first sources – like books, recordings, etc. And ask yourself, “Why is this curious for me? Why do I want to know more?” Then go.
- Apply, test, try on for size. The best way to form a good question is to put what you’ve discovered into action and see what arises. A friend said to me last night, “I didn’t even know the questions I needed to ask. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” Now she does and she’ll be better prepared to help others in the same situation.
- Don’t run away when it is uncomfortable. Ask, “Why is this uncomfortable? Why does it make me mad? What is triggering some deep emotion or total boredom in me?” Be an adventurer into the deep.
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