A Quick Story
It came time for my elementary school teacher, Ms. Porter, to teach my class how to spell out numbers. While my classmates bent over their desks busy with the task, I sat defiantly in my seat with my pencil laying abandoned across my paper.
Instead of commanding me to follow the lesson, Ms. Porter knelt next to my chair and asked why I refused to participate. I explained I didn’t understand why it was important. “When will I ever have to spell out numbers instead of just writing them?”, I asked. After all, writing the number 97 is a much faster, efficient, and easier tactic than spelling out the full ninety-seven.
Ms. Porter thought for a moment before replying, “Because someday, you’ll need to know how to fill out a check. And you can’t do that if you don’t know how to spell out numbers.” That was all it took. Having seen my mom fill out hundreds of checks by then, I could see the value in her lesson. In turn, I picked up my pencil and joined my classmates without further protest.
Why Am I Telling You This?
Because we’ve come to a point in society where asking questions is no longer viewed as a genuine tool to understand something. Instead, questions are taken as a challenge, an insult, or are dismissed altogether.
There’s a reason it’s happening, one you’ve probably already noticed and perhaps felt— a general lack of empathy.
If you spend any time around kids, you know they ask a million questions. As toddlers, they learn the most important question of all — why? It doesn’t take a genius to know the reason behind their inquisitive nature. Children want to understand the world around them and they do it by exploring boundaries and asking questions.
Yet, as they grow up, they lose their natural sense of curiosity and ask fewer questions. Partially, because they learn how to function in the world and understand what’s expected of them — but also because asking questions becomes a risk. They might get a quality answer, but they also might get teased for asking a “stupid” one, or be met with hostility and defensiveness.
The truth is, asking questions plays a vital role in your ability to understand the world and society you live in. Questions open the door to reason, logic, and facts which help you decide what you believe and how to conduct your life.
The Power of Questions
Improve your relationships
Asking questions not only improves your knowledge but also improves your relationships with others romantically, with friends, and at work. For example, if you don’t ask the other person questions during a first date, they might assume you’re not into them.
Questions also help prevent people from taking advantage of you. Anything can sound true if the person saying it seems confident enough. But through asking open-ended questions you can figure out for yourself how honest they’re being.
Yes or no questions don’t do much for continuing a conversation. Whereas open-ended questions force the person to back up their knowledge through facts and reasoning. If they stall by asking a question back without answering your’s first or try to guilt or blame you, they probably aren’t telling you the truth.
Improves Your Leadership
Asking questions helps you figure out challenges and create better solutions for solving problems.
As a manager, asking questions from your staff helps spur creativity and allows a project to be seen from different angles. Whereas, limiting yourself, or your team, to only one idea doesn’t leave much room for improvement. Don’t forget, the first idea isn’t always the best one.
How to Ask Questions Without Insulting Someone
While there may not be any “stupid questions”, there are inconsiderate and poorly worded questions. It’s possible your intentions are pure but your curiosity or excitement comes out as rude or accusatory — in which case, the other person’s annoyance is justified. This is why being mindful of the questions you ask, and how you ask them is vital to getting a kind and useful response.
Think Before You Ask
While questions are powerful, it doesn’t mean you should ask any question you have out loud or immediately. Think about the phrasing of your question, if a stranger asked you the same question would it feel like an insult? What are your own intentions behind asking it — as in, what are you trying to learn?
For example, my friend is commonly asked, “where are you from?”, by well-meaning customers at her job. What they mean is, “what is your ethnicity?”. Her ethnicity is Vietnamese, but she’s from St. Louis Missouri. By asking where she’s from, the customer is implying she’s not American. Good intentions or not, phrasing matters.
Don’t Assume Anything
If you don’t know them, don’t assume you know anything about them — no matter who they are, what they look like, or how they sound. Making assumptions about another person ultimately reveals more about you than it does about them. Often, leaving you looking either foolish, naive, or thoughtless.
Empathy is Everything
Consider how your question could impact the other person and if now is the best time to ask your questions. Maybe they’re in the middle of something else and don’t have time to talk right now, or perhaps there’s a lot of people around and it would be better to wait until it’s just the two of you.
Remember, not everything revolves around you. Consider what someone else is going through. Bombarding them with a thoughtless question on a whim is more likely to result in them responding in a defensive way. Remember, kindness is almost always met with kindness — especially with anyone who works in customer service.
For the last several decades we’ve grown up taught not to ask too many questions and to trust anyone in authority. Except none of that helps us understand what we’re doing or why. Questions shouldn’t be a threat, but as exactly what they are — an attempt to understand something, or someone, better.
When are you doing, acting, or saying something because it’s what you were told? Have you ever questioned why you continue to do it? How often are questions asked of you that you dismiss or become defensive about?