Ask Away!!!

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”

This quote by Lou Holtz, who is a former football player, coach and analyst, speaks to some of the points that were part of my previous blog, Humble Inquiry. If you missed that blog, you may want to read it prior to delving into this one.

As was mentioned in Humble Inquiry, the author of the book- bearing the same name as the title of my previous blog- mentioned how we in the U.S. live in a culture that overvalues telling as opposed to asking questions. The downfall to this is that we never truly get into deep, juicy and meaningful conversations if we don’t learn to ask the right questions. And it’s only through asking questions that we truly walk away having learned something.

Darlings, and if you are of a “particular age” or perhaps raised in a culture where “children should be seen and not heard,” asking questions was not something that was encouraged or valued. No wonder so many of us have never learned the fine art of asking interesting questions. Back in the day, schools taught us basic questions- like who, what, when, where and why- which, when you think about it, do not require much thinking at all. Only in the last 20-25 years or so , when standardized tests became so popular in schools, were we faced with teaching our children open-ended questions and higher order thinking skills.

A couple of months ago I took a White Conversations Class that was offered at my friend’s yoga studio. It was taught by a college professor who facilitated all types of conversations for us dealing with critical examination of self; valuing differences; understanding social conditioning and whiteness; White Privilege; deconstructing yourself; internalized biases; anti-racism work; the differences between dialogue, discussion and debate; how to talk to family and friends about white privilege; AND…drumroll please… questions conducive to seeing and expanding our perspectives. I can’t even begin to tell you all the materials, handouts, and research articles the professor shared with us!

In addition to her genuine and personable disposition, one of the things I liked most about her was that she subscribes to my mindset when it comes to sharing materials. (You all know how I feel that sharing is caring). One of the things she said early on was that we were free to share materials. As a matter of fact, she welcomed and encouraged it.

One of the handouts she shared, and the content I want to pass on to you, is the one dealing with useful questions for facilitating conversations. The information comes from The Program on Intergroup Relation, The University of Michigan .

We are living through very contentious, stressful, and uncertain times these days and, more than ever, we can all use some pointers on having more skillfully conscious conversations on the job, at home, with family and friends. The following are different types of questions, their purpose and examples for each of the different types of questions.

So…let’s get started!

Exploratory Questions: Probe basic knowledge

What to you think about_______? How does _______ make you feel? What bothers / concerns / confuses you the most about _______? What are some of the ways we might respond to_______?

Causal Questions: Open-ended questions that don’t require a detailed or specific kind of response

What is your understanding of _______? What do you want to know about _______? What is the first thing you think about in relations to _______? What are some questions you have about_______? What is one image, scene, event, or moment from your experience that relates to_______?

Challenge Questions: Examine assumptions, conclusions and interpretations

What can we infer / conclude from_______? Does _______ remind you of anything? What principle do you see operating here? What does this help you explain _______? How does this relate to other experiences or things you already know?

Relational Questions: Ask for comparison of themes, ideas or issues

Do you see a pattern here? How do you account for _______? What was significant about _______? What connections do you see? What does _______ suggest to you? Is there a connection between what you’ve just said and what _______ was saying earlier?

Cause and Effect Questions: Ask for casual relationships between ideas, actions or events

How do you think _______ relates or causes _______? What are some consequences of_______? Where does _______ lead? What are some pros and cons of _______? What is likely to be the effect of _______?

Extension Questions: Expand the discussion

What do the rest of you think? How do others feel? What dod you find noteworthy about this comment? How can we move forward? Can you give some specific examples of_______? How would you put that another way?

Hypothetical Questions: Pose a change in the facts or issues

What if _______ were from a different _______, how would that change things? Would it make a difference if we were in a _______ society/culture? How might this dialogue be different if _______? What might happen if we were to _______? How might your life be different it _______?

Diagnostic Questions: Probe motives or causes

What brings you to say that? What do you mean? What led you to that conclusion?

Priority Questions: Seek to identify the most important issue

From all that we’ve talked about, what is the most important concept you see? Considering the different ideas in the room, what to you see as the most critical issue? What do you find yourself resonating with the most? If you had to pick just one topic to continue talking about, what would it be?

Process Questions: Elicit satisfactions / buy-in / interest levels

Is this where we should be going? How are people feeling about the direction of this dialogue? What perspectives are missing from this dialogue? Everyone has been _______ for a while, why? How would you summarize this dialogue so far? How might splitting into groups or pairs affect out discussion?

Analytical Questions: Seek to apply concepts or principles to a new or different situation

What are the main arguments for _______? What are the assumptions underlying _______? What questions arise for you as you think about _______? What implications does _______ have? (for _______?) Does this idea challenge or support what we’ve been talking about? How does this idea / contribution add to what has already been said?

Summary Questions: Elicit synthesis, what themes or lessons have emerged

Where are we? If you had to pick two themes from this dialogue, what would they be? What did you learn? What benefits did we gain today? What remains unresolved? How can we better process this? Based on our dialogue, what will you be thinking about after you leave? Let me see if I understand what we’ve talked about so far…What have I missed? Or, is this what I’ve heard so far…Does anyone have anything to correct or add?

Action Questions: Call for a conclusion or action

How can we use that information? What does this information say about our own action or lives? How can you adapt this information to make it applicable to you? How will you do things differently as a result of this meeting? What are out next steps? What kind of support do we need as we move forward? How does this dialogue fit into our bigger plans?

Evaluative Questions: Gauge emotions, anxiety levels, what is going well or not

Is there anything else you would like to talk about? How are you felling about this now? What was a high point for you? A low point? Where were you engaged? Disengaged? What excited you? Disappointed you?

Darlings, as with all things in life, learning to ask meaningful and thoughtful questions takes practice, consistency and continuity. It may come easy for some and difficult for others. The art of questioning is something we can also teach our young children, grand-children, nieces and nephews starting at an early age. The dinner table is a great place to talk to kids. The more skillful children become at asking questions, the more prepared they will be and the more engaging and well-rounded they will become as adults.

Here’s a fun activity (and you know how I love activities)…decide on a topic, pick some questions from each category, write/ print them on pieces of paper, and throw them into a bowl at dinner or other gatherings. So many families are working and learning from home and in front of screens these days, that actually shutting off phones or putting them away for a bit and engaging in conversations is greatly needed. And if you can do it outdoors, even better. Our eyes and brains need time away from our electronics!

More and more people these days are collecting phones and putting them in a basket or elsewhere during family / holiday dinners so that everyone can be more present with each other. This is a fantastic idea! The biggest gift we can give someone is our presence and undivided attention. Time is a currency that should be used wisely, don’t you think?

My wish is that we all engage in difficult and uncomfortable conversations that offer us opportunities to look at things from different perspectives in an effort to see that, as a HUMAN race, we are more alike that we are different. All it takes is a little vulnerability, courage, strength and an open mind. Here’s to less talking and more asking!

May we continue to move forward with love and intention, curiosity, unity and hearts wide open! JTC