Question asking. It is an art. It is a science. And it’s something that most of us suck at in everyday conversation.
I’m a fan of this book called Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, where the author tries to explain a complex theological concept known as total depravity. This post isn’t about that per se, but part of this concept is the notion that human beings by nature are deeply selfish and find a way to turn everything toward themselves. The compelling analogy he uses is the way in which we talk to each other. For example, say a friend asks you, “How’d your day go?” Instead of responding with a typical, “It was okay,” you actually open up and say, “Yeah, John, today sucked. The calls I made didn’t go the way I wanted and I’m not too sure how I’m gonna move forward with some hard feedback I got from a client.” Then your friend responds, “Yeah, I know what you mean, I had a super hard day too. My boss went on a rant about how we’re not producing like we should and I thought I had been doing really well over the past several months, so I’m not too sure how all of that is going to affect my performance review and then that means I don’t know if I’ll get the bonus we need to go on our vacation, which would stink because we really need that time because the marriage has been struggling as of late and I thought a vacation could really help, but now everything is just kind of up in the air and I don’t know what to do.” Yikes. What happened there? Or you tell someone at work that things are rough because you just found out your mom has cancer and the person says, “I know how hard that is. My great aunt’s sister had cancer and I heard it was really hard on her family too.” That hardly seems relevant to your situation, but you graciously respond, “yeah, it’s hard.”
Have you ever been in conversations like that? You know you have and you know you hate it when you feel like someone isn’t listening to you, especially when you open up like that. And, if you think hard enough, I’m sure you know (but might not be willing to admit) that you’ve also been the person on the other side of the conversation. I have. We say something like, “I do it because I want to relate or connect,” but have you ever felt like someone was really connecting with you when they simply talk back and either dump their issues on you or trivialize your experience? In reality it’s not a conversation, but two people just talking at each other. There’s a shadow of a connection, of a relationship, but it all false very short of what we’re all seeking in one another. I believe there are a ton of motivations for why we won’t take the risk of asking questions, some of which I shared, but too many to get into in this post. Just for fun, try a little experiment next time you talk to someone — see how long it takes for a question to be asked once the conversation gets started. You might be surprised how long we can go just making statements to one another without every really engaging deeper.
But also try another experiment in the conversation after that one. Instead of responding in statements, consider asking more questions. If this isn’t already a regular practice for you, you will most likely find that it is extremely more difficult. You will be concerned about asking the wrong question. You might be afraid the person will think you’re getting too personal. There are no real guarantees because when you ask questions you allow the other person to have a sense of control over the conversation. So yeah, you might get a weird look, or get told that it’s too personal. But you may also find that the person will open up, that he or she will feel heard, and that you will gain trust.
You might be asking, “How do I ask good questions?” That is a good question :) I’ve found that the best place to start is just by asking any question even remotely relevant to the conversation. For the hard day at work, “How did you want the calls to go?” or “What was the feedback?” For the friend whose mom has cancer, “How is she?” or “That sucks, how are you doing?” If at any point genuine caring or curiosity sets in, you’d be surprised at how perceptive your questions can become.
Don’t you want to be heard? Being heard starts with listening and the best way to listen is by asking good questions.