I ask a lot of questions. I do so not only because it’s a necessity for a Mediator, but also because I am genuinely interested in the answers. Call it natural curiosity, call it being a good listener, or call it deflecting the interest away from me. Whatever.
I’ve read books about questions, taken classes, and annoyed my clients, friends, and family. Obviously, there are good and bad questions, and a right way and a wrong way to ask them.
My question for you is at the end of this article, but be mindful that if you skip ahead, you might miss out on some good stuff.
Here are five reasons why questions are important in communication:
- To obtain information.
- To establish an understanding.
- To solve problems.
- To reduce errors.
- To defuse volatile situations.
So, before you start interrogating, take a moment to figure out your purpose. It’s most likely one of the five reasons listed above.
There are two types of questions: open and closed. Closed questions are those requiring either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Open questions, on the other hand, tend to broaden the conversation because not only do they require a greater response, they also encourage the ever-so-important follow-up question. For example, at the scene of a car accident, a closed question would be, “Did you actually witness the impact?” An open question would be, “What did you see?” And then, one of my most often used follow-up questions (which I acknowledge isn’t technically a question, so cut me a little slack): “Tell me more.”
I recently read an excellent book, called “Wait, What?” by James E. Ryan. It’s a quick and extremely interesting read, describing the author’s five essential questions designed to teach us how to achieve greater clarity, wisdom, compassion, and ultimately, fulfillment. The introduction, entitled “Why Do You Ask?” captivated me because that’s one of my very favorite questions. I sometimes respond to a personal question; i.e., “Why aren’t you married?” with “Why do you ask?” I use this technique for several reasons: first, because I might be mildly curious about the other person’s response; second, because I might be genuinely interested in that particular answer; and third, because I might be buying time to come up with a nicer answer than “none of your damn business!”
A good question should be thought provoking. And an experienced asker-of- questions should offer time to respond. Especially for the big questions. When one question leads to another and then another, we are not only seeking out the truth, we are also deepening the relationship. And when we listen to the answers — really listening instead of thinking about what we’ll say next — we become wiser and often more compassionate.
And now, as promised, here’s my question for you: What makes you a good question-asker? Bonus question: What makes you a good listener-to-the-answers?