Why is it so hard to ask a sincerely curious question? I’ve been pondering this lately as I have become aware of how I usually ask questions.
Let’s pretend I’m talking to my friend Mary. Here are the two most common types of questions I ask:
An either/or question – “So, Mary, was it like this, or was it like that?”
I wonder why I feel the need to frame a question as if there were only two possible responses. Do I think it makes me look smarter to Mary if I demonstrate that I have thought of all the possibilities? Do I feel that I must give voice to every possibility that flits through my brain before being quiet?
I’ve been told that if I open my mouth and find myself heading down the road toward an either/or question, I can do a quick left turn and make my question a little better, a little more open-ended, by adding a third option – “or was it like something else?” At least that communicates to Mary that I understand there are more choices than the two I’ve listed.
Or, I could just clamp my mouth shut at the end of “So, Mary, was it like this?” and wait for her response. She could respond with just yes or no – or she might generously offer more information than my closed-ended question requested.
I wonder why I have trouble asking something humbly curious like this: “So, Mary, how was it for you?” That open-ended, direct question not only invites Mary to consider an infinite number of possibilities; it also communicates sincere interest in which of that multitude of possible responses was her actual experience.
A statement dressed up as a question – “So, Mary, you did this and this and this, right?” Or “Mary, I understand that this is how it evolved. Is that correct?”
So, what is going on there? Perhaps there’s the same attempt to impress Mary with how much I know. Those statement/questions are also closed-ended and Mary could choose to simply answer in words of one syllable – yes or no.
If my goal is to elicit new information from Mary and to convey to her my deep interest in her response, a better question might be: “Mary, how did it all work out for you?”
I’ve noticed I’m not alone in being “question challenged.” Even professional interviewers ask closed-ended questions of the sort described above.
One interviewer I listen to regularly has chosen yet another route: not to ask any questions at all. She simply makes a statement and assumes that a question is implied in the statement. Then she stops talking and waits until her interviewee figures out that it is his/her turn to talk and that a response is expected. That often makes for a few seconds of awkward silence.
Maybe awkward silence is what we are trying to avoid when we fill the airwaves with more words than are needed to express simple curiosity. Actually, there is nothing wrong with sitting quietly, letting an open-ended question settle down until it evokes a thoughtful response. Maybe it is a matter of being fully present in the moment with another person, feeling genuine curiosity, owning the simple but clear question we feel inspired to ask, and waiting for whatever comes in response.
I think I’m going to try that.