Monday, November 10, 2008

Let me ask you a question

I need to ask you something...
Why do you...?

It almost doesn't matter what the rest of the question is.

People in this culture (and maybe in others, but I'm not IN others, so I don't know) frequently do not like being asked questions, at all. For some reason, they tend to interpret questions as an attack.

I did not always know this.

I am a very curious person, as a rule, and often ask a lot of questions.
When I ask a question, I am most often looking for information.
The trouble is, people get very defensive, and I don't end up getting the information I was hoping for.
Amusingly, the very same people will often, later, say "You could have asked."

Clearly, there is an issue here.

I first became aware of the defensiveness when I had a partner who could not deal with questions at all. He responded to "Why did you...?" as if I had said "How on earth could you do such a stupid thing, you moron?" The problem was that I really wanted to know why he made the choice he made, so I could think about it, address the issue, and/or explain my side. Then, perhaps, with both of us having more information, we could make a better plan, or come to a better agreement. Instead he would just get pissed off, and accuse me of nagging him. He could not listen long enough to even find out whether I agreed with him, or not. "Why?" to him, ALWAYS meant I thought he was wrong.

I am absolutely sure I am not alone in this.
For a while, I thought it was men who interpreted questions from women as nagging, but that's not the entire story.

Sometimes, it's when someone is asked about something they don't really have an answer for.
Sometimes, it's being questioned about something for which they feel guilty.
Those situations, as annoying as they might be, at least make some sort of sense. People get defensive and evasive when they perceive themselves to be at a disadvantage, or somehow in the wrong.

But it isn't only that, either.

Take this example:

I once knew a student who could not deal with questions of any kind. She clammed up. Got upset. Got emotional. Couldn't answer. And it didn't matter what the question was about, at all. ANY question would do that. Even something as simple as "Did you eat breakfast this morning?"

She would overinterpret.
Why are you asking about breakfast? Are you saying I'm fat? Are you going to criticize what I ate? Is there some particular reason I was supposed to eat... or not eat...or...?
And then, she would overanalyze her answers.

She was, as people often are, trying to find the "right" answer. Trying desperately to give the answer she believed the asker to be trying to get. Not the TRUE answer mind you, but the RIGHT answer. There is a world of difference.

This difficulty with questions, I believe, comes from faults in the public education system. Lots of questions there, many of which don't matter, and most of which are used to "grade" someone, to decide their value, their importance, how popular they are. People are HIGHLY motivated to figure out what they are supposed to say, what they are supposed to think, what they are supposed to do. Again, it isn't about what is RIGHT to say, or think, or do, it isn't about what they actually think or believe, it's about trying to play this match game with the person in authority who is asking the questions.

This is a dangerous precedent to create for nearly all of our adult citizens.
People who grow up in an environment that is hostile to asking questions, and surrounded by questions they are supposed to already know the answers to and regurgitate on command, don't learn to really question things, and don't learn how to give AND SUPPORT their own answers rather than whatever has been fed to them.

Back to my experience with this student I knew.

When I was first learning to teach, one of the master's primary tools for teaching was questions. Lots of questions. Some leading questions, some not. Some genuine requests for information, some to see what I knew. Some- probably most- to get me to think, to evaluate, to understand, and then be able to explain my position well enough to teach it to another person, who would ALSO be able to understand and explain it.

Fortunately for me, I love questions.

Not so much, this other student.

I can recall many instances where, after much discussion and such, I would be asked a question. After I gave my answer, the master would ask "Are you sure?" or some variation thereof, like "Do you want to think about that further?"

Here is where my unusual education has been a great help to me.
I could answer the question. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes with more questions.

But what happened to this other student was instant paralysis. She invariably interpreted "Are you sure?" as MOST people with highly schooled backgrounds interpret it- the teacher's attempt to let you know that your answer was WRONG, and you need to change it. So change it, she would. And then, when asked to defend that answer... she had no idea what to do. She had backed herself into a corner. She behaved as if she felt guilty, when she had done nothing wrong, because the QUESTION ITSELF, but its very nature of being a question, made her ASSUME she must be guilty, of something.

It was... uncomfortable.

I remember being asked this many, many times. Sometimes, the answer was "yes, I'm sure." Sometimes, it was "...uh... no, not really," and that would lead to more discussion and clarification, which was the purpose of the question in the first place. And a few times, it was "yes, I'm absolutely sure," and upon further discussion, I would come across information that changed my perspective, and then, I would realize that I was BOTH absolutely sure, and WRONG.

Being sure, and being right, are not the same thing.
Being sure, and refusing to question, to constantly re-evaluate and clarify and think it through more, means that you might miss that bit of information that lets you find out that you were wrong, and you'll go on believing you were right. Not a good thing.

The other thing that becomes clear with being comfortable with being asked questions, is the distinction between fact and opinion. Some things are opinions, what I think. Some things are facts, what I know. And some things- this might be the largest category- are things I think I know.

Those things are always up for re-evaluation.

I'm big on "as far as I can tell with the information I have right now..." I have no problem with differentiating between what I really know, and what I think, and what I'm not even sure what I think about. If I'm asked a question I don't know the answer to, that's okay. If I'm asked a question that is critical of my position, that's okay, too. I can state my position, and defend it- and if I can't, then I need to get more information so that I can. That's not being wrong, it's simply not knowing. I know I don't know everything, so it doesn't embarrass me. I can say "I don't know." Or I'm not sure, or I hadn't thought about it, or I need more information, and be comfortable with that.

So let me ask you something...

Why are you afraid of questions?


hilinda said...

Before you leave a comment, let me ask you something again.

What was your gut level, emotional response to the question "Why are you afraid of questions?

Did you start to justify yourself? Did you get angry? Did you want to accuse me of making assumptions?

Or did you read the question, and, not being afraid of questions, could you simply say "I'm not." and let it go at that?

After all, some people are not afraid of questions, at all. Perhaps you are one of them.


GreenJello said...

My response: "I didn't know I was."

A very interesting post-- I know many people who are afraid to be questioned, too. I hope my kids aren't... I've tried to create a home environment that is very nurturing to questions and questioning.

I always got in trouble in school for asking too many questions...

Spartacus Jones said...

A good post.
Two things to always be suspicious of:

unanswered questions
unquestioned answers.



MLight said...

I like questions! (grin) It might take me a while to answer them, but that's even better. I love having new things to think about or a chance to clarify my own thoughts.

To me, asking someone a question shows that you're taking what they said seriously enough to think about it (except at school where I didn't ask questions because it would just get me in trouble).

I'm glad you wrote what you did, though, because it helped me understand those who don't like questions.

CoyoteFe said...

Hello, Hilinda.

The most impactful point in your post, for me, was the one about the education system. I must admit that I tend to react to difficult questions with, "What do you mean?". Add that to the fact that I tend to ask the questions, and ...

To answer your post-question: It's never the question (in it's own right) that bothers me. It's my concern about the motive behind the question.

Katherine Crocker said...

Questions aren't frightening, but I do not like them. The reason? So few people are actually interested in listening to the full answer.

hilinda said...

Great comments, thanks!

jello- I can believe that you got in trouble for asking questions, especially if the schools you went to were anything like the one your daughter is dealing with now.


mlight- Great to see you here!!
I agree with questions showing enough interest to think about something.

It's tough, that, figuring out someone's motives. Some people, it's very clear. Others, not so much.

Katherine- you hit the nail on the head. You're absolutely right, that many people ask questions but aren't actually interested in the answer. I think that's a HUGE reason why so many people are just plain tired of questions. This is a big school issue, too.

Plus, rhetorical questions can be great thought-motivators OR a pain in the ass. Depends.