“Find Out” Tips
A few common-sense tips on asking good questions:
1. Ask open-ended questions
Questions that can be answered with yes or no are generally best avoided. Sometimes, though, they are good in order to verify information, but you’ll need to follow them up with open-ended questions. For example, in our case, “Do you think they are going to Hell because they are Hindu?” If Yes, “Why do you believe this?” or “What do you know about Hinduism?” If No, “What did you mean by them getting ready for Hell?”
Be careful about asking questions mechanically or preparing the questions beforehand, as you may miss out on the opportunity to go deeper by following up on a promising answer. To give you a very blatant example, a journalism student of mine once interviewed a sculptor. He had all his questions prepared and was a bit nervous. One of the questions was, “How did you learn to sculpt?” The answer was “In prison,” after which my student moved on to the following question on his list. I think you’ll agree that this was probably the focal point of the interview (the sculptor had been a political prisoner in Communist Romania).
2. Go deeper
Because they fear criticism or lack sufficient knowledge or experience on a subject, people often fear opening themselves up; they will answer things in a general, non-personal manner. When that happens, it’s good to remember that what we are trying to find out is what makes our interlocutor uniquely valuable. When they give a general answer, ask them what that particular thing means to them or for an example of a time when they personally experienced it or failed to experience it. Can you get a story that is theirs and theirs alone?
3. Observational questions
There is no substitute for paying attention. Many details can give us useful clues to help us understand our interlocutor better: body language, tone of voice, the circumstances in which we are having the conversation, etc. Paying attention to all these factors will help us ask better questions, and we may even be able to guess a thing or two. Can you describe a time when you could tell if someone you were talking to was saying one thing but feeling another? How did you pick up on that?
Paying attention will help you be present in the discussion and keep it alive. It will help you stay out of your own head and be more mindful of the living ebb and flow of the communication exchange.
Be a child again, just like yesterday—go out and ask questions again. But this time, try to experiment with the tips above. Have you become more efficient at finding things out?
“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?’”
-Shannon L. Alder
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