How to Ask Good Questions, Part 1 in a Series
February 27, 2013 Leave a comment
People ask me what my next book will be about. I answer that I’d like to investigate how to ask good questions. It’s one of those skills we’re all presumed to have – like how to participate in a work meeting - but that no one ever teaches us.
So after some cursory googling I came across a blog post by Peter Wood called “How to Ask a Question” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which focuses particularly on asking questions after a talk or debate. I give myself bonus points for reading his post because Wood’s politics appear to be diametrically opposed to mine. But, using basic critical thinking skills, I knew that just because he’s opposed to “diversity” and “multiculturalism” doesn’t mean he has nothing to say about asking good questions.
Indeed, he has some useful, practical, specific advice. Just the kind I like. Here’s a sample:
Weigh the usual interrogatory words in English: who, what, where, why, when. If you can begin your sentence with one of these you are more than half-way to a good question. “Who gave you that scar, Mr. Potter?” “What is a black hole, Mr. Hawking?” “Where is the Celestial City, Mr. Bunyan?” “Why are you wearing that letter, Ms. Prynne?” “When will our troops come home, Mr. Lincoln?”
Unfortunately, Wood does not acknowledge how culturally specific his conversational style is. He values brevity and detachment over spontaneous discussion and emotional content. (As it happens, I do, too.)
Here’s some more of his advice:
Don’t engage in meta-speech. “I was wondering, Ms. Steinem, if I might ask you a question that I am really curious about.” Go directly to the question. “Ms. Steinem, who is the man you admire the most?”
I think a little meta-speech is ok. After all, we’re motivated to go to a talk or debate because we care about the topic. Not talking about such things is a preference, not an imperative, and a typically male preference at that.
That’s one of the reasons why the topic of asking questions is so interesting. The distinction between a good and bad question is deeply informed by our preferences. But there are still better and worse questions.
What advice do you have for asking good questions?