“So, tell me about you. How are things?”
I begin my terrifying wild goose chase for an answer – blindfolded and barefoot. “I’m fine!” Grammar alert, that’s not what they asked. “Things are fine?” That’s a little vague, Gemma. “This little thing of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” Now we’re way off.
Ok, I jest, I jest. It’s not really that bad. But I’ve been thinking a lot about questions recently. My friend Emma says they’re her love language. The taxi driver I met last week says they’re his bread and butter. The coaching course I took a few months ago was entirely focused on them.
But I think they actually might be in danger of becoming extinct. I think we’re forgetting how to ask them.
You see, in this wonderful digital age, which I truly do believe has brought such exciting tools to work with, we don’t have to ask much to know much. Sometimes we don’t even have to ask at all. We already know where Sarah went on holiday, what Brian is reading, what Liv’s next business move is. But it doesn’t take a genius, when you put it that way, to understand that we aren’t getting the full picture. Maybe we don’t really know much at all.
There are reasons why questions are an endangered species. Perhaps we don’t want to appear nosy. Or we don’t know what to ask. Or maybe we’re out of energy – and questions take work.
Here’s the thing, though. They’re worth it. Questions are wonderful things. Here’s why.
QUESTIONS STRENGTHEN RELATIONSHIP
In order to ask you a good question, I need to think about what I know about you, about what you said last time we spoke, about other things I may have picked up. So in asking you a good question, I’m valuing you. I’m putting effort into how I relate to you. I’m remembering you. I’m acknowledging you. I’m saying you matter.
QUESTIONS CREATE SPACE
Questions generate a safe and vibrant culture for relationship to grow in. I’m valuing you, and I’m committed to our conversation. I’m rooting for you, and I’m providing space with my question marks. Questions open doors. They can sometimes feel tense – questions are risky, we don’t know what will come next. But that’s where we can grow, and thrive. Questions allow us to do that together.
QUESTIONS BRING SOLUTIONS
Questions are powerful. I have hugely benefitted from people asking me questions, framing something that’s going on in my life in a new way – this often leads me to find a solution, or a different way to approach whatever is going on. This is why coaching is mainly centred around questions. Questions unlock answers. As Galileo wrote: “You cannot teach a man anything. You can only help him discover it within himself.”
So let’s get practical. Here are a few types of questions to try out next time you’re having a conversation with someone.
* Open questions. Rather than closed questions – that can be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – open questions give us a chance to express interest in the person we are talking to and allow the conversation to flow. “What is happening at work for you right now?”
* Directive questions. These guide the conversation in a specific direction. “How will you factor in more rest time this weekend?” “After our conversation last week, you mentioned a trip you were anxious about. How did that go?”
* Emotion questions. I find it helpful when friends ask me these questions if I’m struggling to identify or deal with a particular emotion. “How do you feel about your job at the moment?” “What was your impulse when that happened?”
* Why questions. These allow room for exploring. Funny story: on my first date with Dan, my husband, I asked him why he thought history, the subject he had just finished his PhD in, was important… He was taken aback, but hey, we are married now, so it must have been OK! “Why do you think you responded in that way?” “Why did you get into science?”
* Forward-thinking questions. These cast the conversation in a progressive direction and can help the person you are asking them of to look beyond something that may be difficult at the time. “What can you do to change this?” “How can I help?”
Try your best to be present – don’t spend too much time lining up your next question that you miss the answer. Reflect back: “So you are concerned about her numeracy skills, but her teacher seems very able…” Explore an answer further: “What do you mean by…?” “How did you feel when that happened?” And keep moving forward: “Do you have any ideas about how you’d like to change that?”
So let’s try it. Let’s ask better questions. And let’s practice listening when we do. Who knows what might happen.