philosophy, Relationships
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Learn to Ask Better Questions

What is a question?

two women having conversation on stairs

Every person is a source of wisdom.  Ask questions and to learn what s/he knows!

I’m sure you ask questions everyday, but probably don’t have a ready answer for that question. Maybe your first reply is something along the lines of, “it’s a way of getting information from another person when you don’t know something.”

That’s only partially correct.  Confused why?  Keep reading: my blog today is about questions, designed to enhance your question asking skills.  Asking the right questions provides advantages:

  1. You’ll be a better listener. Listening is an interpersonal skill that is just as important as talking.  A conversation needs two people; it’s not just two people volunteering information and moving the air.  If you can ask a question after someone stops talking, it’s a sign that you were listening and understood what was said.
  2. You’ll improve your relationships. This will apply especially to the men in relationships.  Asking questions will both allow you to avoid talking when you don’t want to and make your partner feel loved (Ask me about my day, please!).
  3. You’ll know yourself better by engaging your curiosity.  Figuring out what intrigues you is partially a practice of asking questions over and over and figuring out how you feel about both the question and the answer.
  4. You’ll learn how to disarm an opponent. By asking questions, you’ll be able to engage calmly with people even when you disagree.  They’ll think you’re interested in them, not argumentative; therefore, they’ll be more likely to explain themselves and maybe even listen to you!  Showing interest is inherently validating since it creates an external affirmation of a person’s significance.  The person is the focus of attention and is treated as a source of knowledge/understanding.  That feels good!

Remember the six “question words”:

If you can’t remember, get a Clue. The question words are Who, what, when, where, why, and how.  For example:

What is the opposite of a horse?

What is the natural habitat of a unicorn?unicorn

When is the status quo?

… Wait, are you telling me those don’t make sense?  You’re probably so good at making questions that if I asked you to make some nonsensical questions, you would find it difficult.   (In case you’re wondering, what’s wrong with the first is that a horse is not the type of object that can have an opposite.  What’s wrong with the second is that unicorns are only concepts – not real existing things. What’s wrong with the third is that the term “status quo” always refers to the current state of affairs – and current is a relative notion.)  My point is: Congratulations – you’re already pretty good at knowing a good question from a bad!

How to ask specifically for the information you want:

Sometimes it’s hard to see a bad question.  They’re not always as obvious as the previous examples.  Other confusing questions:

Question: Where is Ghana?

A: east of Cote d’Ivoire; B: in Africa; C: on planet Earth; D: She lives in San Diego.

The question you ask determines the kind of answer you get.  If you don’t ask a specific enough question, the person you ask will not be able to give you the answer you want.  Try asking instead: Where on a map is the country of Ghana located?

Question: Do you want coffee or tea?

A: Coffee

B: Tea

C: Yes

D: No

All of these really do answer the question, exactly as asked.  But if you were asked this question, what did the asker intend to ask?  Try asking instead: Can I bring you a coffee or would you prefer tea? (In logical terms, “or” is a disjunct but in speech, “or” is an conjunct.)

Q: What did you eat for lunch?

How would you answer this question if you did not eat lunch today?  The asker made an assumption and made it hard for you to give information openly.  The asker could have started by asking, did you eat lunch yet? (Fun factoid: In Mandarin, a common way to ask “How are you?” actually means “Have you eaten?”, 你吃飯了嗎?)

How to avoid the awkward silence:

Eliminating assumptions, slowing down and asking one simple, open-ended question at a time is a way to encourage other people to elaborate and volunteer information.

In contrast, asking Yes or No questions or presenting only two alternatives is a psychological trick to assist people to make a decision.  Most parents know, for example, that it’s easier to get a response from a child if you ask, “Do you want milk or apple juice?” instead of, “What do you want to drink?”

How to keep your goal in mind:

Not all questions are looking for answers.  What purposes do questions have?

  1. A request for information from another person – if this is your goal, remember to ask specifically! Ambiguous questions provide ambiguous answers
  2. A (polite) command – “Could you open the window?” vs. “Please open the window.”
  3. An aggressive argument, or rhetorical – “Do you really think you can have your cake and eat it too?” or “Who do you think you are?”
  4. A bit of nonsense (questions that don’t make sense) for meditationWhat is the sound of one hand clapping? The question is empty of conceptual content, since one hand doesn’t clap.
  5. Validation or an invitation to converse – “Do you think I look alright?” The faultless answer is always, “You look beautiful.”


Question everything – even the most glaring truths! 

Can you eat the sun?  Yes, if you get the right perspective! (A beautiful sunset in Tai-O fishing village, Hong Kong. Eating a bright yellow yolk!)


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