Our ability to have meaningful dialogue with each other is being endangered by too much technology, too little listening and a culture where angry rants rule the day. It seems that our interactions, both online and in person, have devolved into a series of collective monologues, with no one listening or thoughtfully engaging. The skills that bring about dynamic conversations and elevated interactions — listening and asking questions — are nearly extinct.
John Guaspari, in his work “I Know It When I See It,” tells a story about a fictional company called Punctuation Inc. This imaginary company crafted a broad line of products including parentheses, colons, question marks and exclamation points. Unfortunately, it had a quality control problem.
A frustrated customer came in one day with a complaint about the exclamation points he had purchased.
The customer said, “I was trying to discipline my kids, and I wanted to be forceful, so I used an exclamation point. I was hot under the collar — so hot that the exclamation points began to melt."
The customer explained that when the exclamation points melted, they would sag into question marks. So instead of sounding firm, intimidating and loud, he sounded understanding and thoughtful. Instead of being unbending and uncompromising, he listened and was more inquisitive.
There really can be a greater quality to all of our relationships if we understand the difference between exclamation points and question marks. Instead of trying to make points, we might want to try asking a question instead.
From many experiences with my wife and children, colleagues, employees, politicians, business leaders and even strangers, I have adopted a simple philosophy, “If you must speak, ask a question.” It is amazing what you can do with a question. I believe you can do far more with a question than you can ever do with a statement. With a question you can calm someone down or defuse a volatile situation. In an argument, by far the best way to get your point across is to frame as a question. So rather than shouting or making statements, you could ask, “What would happen if we tried this?” Or, “If we implemented this strategy where would that take us?”
By asking a question you are showing that you are interested in the other person and what they have to share. The natural byproduct of asking a question is that the other person will be more open and more likely to listen to you.
Rules for effectively using questions are simple. Your question must be a sincere, non-sarcastic question, and you must be willing to listen to the response. Questions like, “What were you thinking?” “Do you want to drive?” or “How could you be so stupid?” generally do not produce positive results. These rules are especially important when you are asking questions of a spouse or loved one.
I have also discovered that the best way to give someone a compliment is to phrase it in the form of a question. Our natural response when someone does something well is to say something like “good job” or “way to go!”
But there is a decided difference if, instead, you ask a question. For example, suppose your daughter scores the winning goal in her soccer game. A natural reaction for a parent would be to give praise. Statements like “you’re the best!” or “you’re the champion!” are easy to call out. Imagine if instead you asked a question like: “What were you thinking as you saw the ball sailing into the goal?” Or “How did you feel knowing you had just won the game?” This type of question completely transforms the focus from the act or performance to the individual. The change is dramatic and powerful.
People will gain far more confidence and self-esteem by having the opportunity to share with you their thoughts about their performance than they will by simply listening to your statements of praise.
There are countless ways to incorporate effective and elevating questions into our conversations. When we ask a question and truly listen, we are showing interest in the other person, and that changes everything. Imagine what would happen in our personal relationships, neighborhoods, businesses and in the halls of power if we talked less, listened more and learned to ask more meaningful questions.
Who in your life would benefit from a thoughtful question today?
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.