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The Intent of a Question

The opportunity to ask a question is a beautiful thing about life. I once heard that "Questioning is the Art of Learning". It's so true! Since questions are an important tool for helping us learn from others, I am interested in exploring the motivations behind our questions. Most would agree that understanding the intention of a question is a useful skill for navigating life, and building relationships. Also, as the receiver and answerer, a question provides unique insight into the information the other person wants from you. It's a key source you have for understanding what's important to them. An individual's words, and specifically their questions, shed light into their thoughts. I have found in many instances that the quality and sincerity of one's questions to you are directly related to the authenticity of that person. I should caveat that there are very sweet and well-meaning people who just are not great at asking questions, they may be shy or just have a hard time thinking on their feet. However, not everyone's questions are innocuous, as some people will ask questions to push an agenda, interrogate, or even criticize.

I had a situation a few months back where an individual spent most of our time together asking me about who I had spent time with that week, what groups of people I hang out with, if I had any recent parties at my house, and several other questions related to assessing who I associate with. I just kept dodging the questions, mainly because I had just worked and spent time with family that week - there honestly wasn't much to share. If only my life were more interesting, Ha! However, I left the conversation tired and wondering if the person wanted to actual build a relationship. They seemed more interested in assessing my social status or connections or whatever. It got me thinking about the importance of the intent behind a question. As I've been thinking about this, I came up with a list of 6 "Do's" when asking questions.

Be Specific. Have you ever had someone pay you a generic compliment? "You are a great person", "You are smart", "You are beautiful". These are all very nice things to say, and never offensive, but they are too EASY. Most things meaningful in life require passion and attention to detail. It's just harder to be specific, but when somebody is specific, you take notice and it's authentic. For the quotes above, more meaningful statements would be "Your love for people really shows", "Your vocabulary is amazing", "Your eyes are beautiful". Again, the specificity proves your sincerity and it will mean so much more to the person you are paying the compliment. Questions work the same way, if your interest is sincere, your questions will be more specific.

Be Sincere. We should look forward to the answers to our questions and seek to draw conclusions and meaning. Have you ever had somebody ask you a question only to have them break eye contact, or even worse, just start talking to someone else? That's the pits, man! It's almost better to not ask the question if you are not truly excited about the answer. If we struggle to truly care, we could be discounting how much we could be learning from others. Everybody is an expert in something, it's our job to find out what it is. Once we find out their specialty, they typically will enjoy sharing their tips and tricks. It's a win/win as we learn something new and our counterpart has finally found someone with interest in their hobby. By the way, it can be very esoteric, like competitive duck herding or geomapping, which is fun!

Be Positive. Ask questions in a way that lead with positivity. Avoid questions that could force someone to focus on something unpleasant. If a friend has a grandparent in hospice, asking about how long they have been in hospice may be the wrong approach (depending on how close you are). Assuming we are interested, we should ask them if their grandparent has been able to be with family, or if anything encouraging has happened to them recently. Focus on the good!

Watch for Boundaries. If someone has avoided a specific subject matter, or it could be potentially uncomfortable, be careful about asking nosy questions, especially in larger group settings. If we are unsure if it's appropriate, following their lead is a good idea.

Be Neutral. When asking a question, it's best to not also make a point. "Don't you think you should do this instead?" is not the best way to persuade someone to action.

Seek to Help. Learning for our own benefit is nice, but it can still be self-centered. Ultimately, we should ask questions that lead us to action in a positive way for that person. This is related to specificity as well. The more specific your questions, the more detailed answers you will receive. We may even find ourselves with more opportunity to encourage people simply because they could see we cared about the detail. However, avoid the misstep of trying to fix everything, I've certainly made this mistake before (many times!). Not everything in life has a solution, sometimes people need us to just ask questions and then listen and truly care.




Washington, DC, USA