Asking thoughtful questions is a lost art in an opinion-saturated world.
I would like to propose that we all stop asking the following questions: “How’s it going?” “How you doing?” “What’s going on?” “What’s up?” or any of their variations. Do we really expect to get an answer when we ask them? Do we even want an answer? Next time a coworker asks one of these questions in passing at the office, go ahead and launch into the complexities of your life, the nuances of self discovery and your struggle with the ennui of corporeal life and enjoy the delicious look of miscalculation on their faces.
How’s it going? Is there a more vague question in the English tongue?
This may be just a peeve of mine, a semantic superciliousness that I should just get over. After recent polls of my wife, I have been described as borderline insufferable 100 percent of the time on these trivial matters. If that’s so, just let me ride this one out and we can all forget about it. But I might have a point. Which, for those who, like my wife, live with the peevish know that them actually having a point to their peeves is the absolute worst thing that could happen; it encourages them.
These are not even questions but more of a pseudo-greeting. The American greeting is a rhetorical question. That’s so meta. They are the verbal equivalent to that little arch thing we do with our eyebrows when we see another human. I acknowledge the existence of another eternal soul with my eyebrows. “Wow, that Tim, man, he really cares. Did you see that thing he did with his eyebrows just now? I feel like he really saw me, ya know? He says it best when he says it with his eyebrows.”
And what is the typical response we get from others when we ask these non-questions? “Fine.” We all have caught on by now that we are going to put equally as little effort into answering the question as the person did in asking it. Everyone’s just great!
Instead, what if you asked me, “Did you have a bowel movement today?” Now I’ll admit, if any of you came up to me at church and asked about my daily constitutionals, I’d be surprised, but pleasantly so. Why, yes, I did, and I appreciate your asking, or, Not yet, and perhaps that accounts for my dislike of the sermon this morning. I would feel like we really accomplished something. You have a piece of information about me, something you didn’t know before.
Ok, so what’s my point about all this? Good question-asking can deepen relationships, open conversations and establish credibility. And we should ask them on purpose.
Aristotle, an excellent question-asker, identified three modes of persuasion that one could use to effectively appeal to an audience. He referred to them as the three artistic proofs: logos, pathos and ethos.
Pathos refers to speakers’ ability to appeal to the emotions of their listeners. Ethos is the pedigree of the speaker—the reason they should be listened to. If you were addressing an audience on climate change you would introduce yourself as having your doctorate in ecology, being a fellow of the Institute for Blah Blah Whatever and having written several peer-reviewed scientific papers. Or if you are Bill Nye the Science Guy, you somehow establish your credibility as one who can speak with authority on gender, climate change, astrophysics, geology and any other dusty corner of science, even though you are only a mechanical engineer. Lastly, logos is the logical laying out of your argument; it is the means to convince your audience by logic and reason.
This is the art of rhetoric. First you establish yourself as one who can be trusted, then use the mind and heart to bring your audience to hear what you have to say with the least amount of mental or emotional roadblocks.
So what does this have to do with questions? In a culture where opinions are as ubiquitous and hollow as belly buttons, a thoughtful question from a loving heart is a fast way to establish credibility with another person and create a safe place for them to open up about their life to you.
Like most people, my opinions are often free and unsolicited. I like to think of myself as being on a float in a parade tossing out my delicious opinions to all the little kiddies to gobble down greedily. The effect of this in relationships is that others frequently will harden. There is nothing that can foul the air more quickly than a free-range opinion. But when others see that you enjoy hearing their opinions, they are more likely to want to hear yours.
There is a catch. Don’t ask a question just so you can be asked the same one in return. And don’t wait for them to finish talking just so you can jump in. Sometimes I resolve to only ask questions in a conversation, to try to find the studs of their worldview behind the drywall, no matter how tempting it is to grab the mic and correct them on their wrong opinions. Asking questions is like donating a kidney: once it’s out, you mustn’t expect to get it back. This is important because there is nothing that will turn another person off so fast as one who asks you to play basketball just so they can dunk over you. People can smell a hustle a mile away.
I have been asking thoughtful questions at work for many years. Often times people will walk by a conversation I am having with a coworker and comment on the depth it. Eighty percent of Americans don’t exercise regularly; fewer think deeply. That can sound a bit haughty, I know, but it is an observation from years of asking questions of others. It is not a judgement against anyone. Our society isn’t exactly one that encourages deep thought. I mean, think about it. Instagram, Snapchat, 280-character tweets—it isn’t a recipe for fathoming life. Stranger Things isn’t going to binge watch itself. People need regular, healthy thought snacks, and we all love to be asked our opinion.
Question-asking has opened conversations about the gospel more than cold-call evangelism ever has. People feel cared about, appreciative. More than a few times I have heard the phrase, “I never thought about that before…” in response to a question I asked.
Become a good question asker. It will deepen your current relationships and establish trust in new ones. Jesus asked tons of questions and he even knew the answers already. It drew others out and helped them stumble upon their own need for better answers than they had. Make them intentional, direct and selfless.
And while we are at it, someone please come up with a new greeting question other than the one I recommended; I know we are one in Christ and all, but c’mon.