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How NOT to Ask a Question

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Questions can be life-changing.

They can help you:

  • See the world with new eyes
  • Redefine a problem
  • Find options that might have eluded you
  • Discover new pathways to action

Great questions help you reframe the world.

As e.e. cummings wrote:

“Always the beautiful answer

Who asks a more beautiful question”*

David Cooperrider, founder of the field of “Appreciative Inquiry” wrote:

“Organizations gravitate toward the questions they ask.”*

 When teaching leaders how to improve the power of their interpersonal communications, I start with how to listen and ask good questions. I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t improve in these areas (self very much included!)

 So how do we ask great questions – questions that open doors for us and help us see the world in new ways?

I’m not going to answer that one – or at least not this week (stay tuned for next week). Instead we’re starting with how NOT to ask a question.

 Everyday, we’re surrounded everyday by questions that don’t need to be asked (or answered).

They flourish on talk shows and dinner parties where too much booze has turned everyone into an expert.

These are questions that suck our attention. They only masquerade as questions because, truthfully, no one really cares about the answers or plans to do anything with them.

Here’s a sample of non-question questions – (I’ve been guilty of a few of them!)

Disguised judgments

 “Why didn’t you do your homework?”

“How many times do I have to tell you to take out the garbage.”

These aren’t real questions but covert statements designed to make someone else feel yucky! There’s no way to answer them credibly without going down a rabbit hole of ridiculousness. (Well, I was going to do my homework, but then Marjorie called and I was so upset that I missed my bus and then I discovered I left my cell phone in class and couldn’t get it till tomorrow and I didn’t know the assignment and when I finally got home YOU made me feed the cat and then I called Percy but he wasn’t at home…)

Disguised requests

 Isn’t it time to take out the garbage? Translation: the pantry stinks – TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE (please).

Wouldn’t you like to go for a walk? Translation: You’ve been sitting on your butt all day and so have I and I need to exercise and so do you but you don’t seem to want to so maybe if I say it nicely you’ll get out of your chair before I throw myself in front of a cart and scream GET MOVING OR YOU’LL DIE.

Opinion fests

Don’t you think Hilary Clinton should leave Bill? (Translation: please oh please ask me my thoughts on the matter.)

Requests for unwarranted expertise/speculation

Do you think the Italian court is going to acquit Amanda Knox? (I was really rooting for Amanda – but my opinion on the matter did not sway the court one iota.)

Do you think we’re going to have nice weather this June? (No meteorologist would answer this question, so why are you asking me?)

An invitation to gossip

Did you see how she looked at him?

Is that her natural hair color?

Why would anyone with her background date him? (Translation: I’m so hungry for gossip that I’ll throw out teasers until somebody bites.)

The above questions have nothing to do with inquiry. But they might be good material for the movie “My Big Fat Opinion Fest.”

PLUS the one question you should never answer

 Do you think I look fat? (This is not a question, repeat, this is not a question.)

Why are we so bent on having to know everything?

Maria Popova in her 2012 Atlantic article quoted Frank Lloyd Wright

“An expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows’.”*

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking we know (even though this always earned me points in school), and find questions that help us pay attention, think differently, and explore new possibilities.

Please join me. Post some categories of non-question questions on the blog site. And join me next week as we explore how to start asking good questions!

* Thanks to Michael Berger for the quotes in his insightful book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

Here’s to inquiry!




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