If only there was a way to find out
Asking questions is hard. I used to be terrible at it, and I still have to use a considerable amount of energy to ask questions in most situations. I appear to be in good company: Every day I see people who reason, guess, wonder or complain about issues they could approach with a question. If I’m feeling very grumpy, I’ll comment with “If only there was a way to find out.”.
Asking questions is a great tool. It gives you access to information you didn’t have before, regardless of the answer you receive. It deepens your understanding, both of the answer you receive, the person giving the answer, and yourself. Questions are a great, honest way to build and improve relationships and friendships. And that’s just for pretty average questions: If you build up your questioning skills, you’ll get deeper and better answers, which in turn allow deeper and better questions.
So how do you get good at asking questions? There’s an active skillset to finding and asking good questions, and like most skills, you can improve it through thoughtful practice. Good questions spring from honest curiosity. Find out what you’re missing, what’s only known to others, what seems unreasonable or mysterious or obviously wrong to you – and then accept that you’re probably missing something. Making a good faith effort to improve your understanding will guide you to possible good questions to ask. They stand opposed to pointed questions that are intended to educate, to hurt, or to show off how knowledgeable you are¹.
Once you have candidates for good questions, try coming up with answers yourself. You may realise that you can actually answer part of the question and that you can be more specific in what you want to know. Or you may realise that you’re not sure about some preconditions that you need to understand any answer you can be given. Getting an answer after you’ve tried to guess possible answers is terribly useful. Follow-up questions will come naturally, because you have already built a context for the answer!
So finding a good question requires thoughtfulness – but actually asking the question requires a bit of emotional processing.
If you’re like me, the biggest part is undoing past damage, because the hard part isn’t to ask the best questions, it’s to ask questions at all. If you’ve ever had the experience of talking to a roughly three year old child, you’ll know that most of us start out with a tremendous² capacity for asking questions. Why is the sky blue? How does the train know where to go? Why don’t you just print more money? Who’s the boss of you?
And then, after some time, some of us (most of us?) stop asking questions. Maybe you were given to understand that you were smart, and smart kids know everything already. Maybe your questions stumped or annoyed the others, and you learnt that people liked you better if you stayed quiet. Maybe you were ridiculed for not knowing something. Maybe you compared yourself to others without a strong foundation in self-worth. Probably it was a combination of these and other things. It’s worth your time to figure out what is keeping you from asking questions. Chances are that it’s a legacy emotion that you need to reconsider.
Even if asking questions isn’t this hard for you, there’s a layer of emotional reasoning to it. If you ask a question, you yield the floor and the answer you receive is out of your hands. But you still have some responsibility: You’ll have to deal with the answer. Answers can be unhelpful, unexpected, empty, hurtful, out of scope, incomprehensible. As the person asking the question, it’s your responsibility to be open to the possibility that you won’t like the answer – the more personal the question, the more important. Do not ask questions if you’re not prepared to hear the answer.
Recap: All you need to do is find questions, imagine possible answers, overcome a predisposition not to ask questions and then accept all kinds of answers … But then you’ll unlock the power of finding out what’s in other people’s minds, and that makes the effort worth it.
¹ Please appreciate that I cut an entire rant on the Socratic method here.
² To parents: terrifying.