We’re Meant to Ask Questions

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

So many of us have been there. “Wah wah, wah wah wah wah.”

The clock strikes 9 a.m. and a herd of textbooks settles in around ’70s decor of incandescent yellow and squeaky desk chairs. The topic du jour etched in white.

The expert nests with his briefcase and mammoth of incoherent jargon on a page. Ear drums await their $500-per-credit lecture.

“Wah wah, wah wah wah wah.”

So begins the monologue without eye contact. Without a sense of those taking in the scene being anything other than tutelage for one’s ego.

It will last 90 minutes, before migrating to another room. Before repeating the rhythm of monologues and test-taking.

Mechanism. Utility. Objects for learning what cog they are to rub and motivate other cogs in society’s great wheel.

Charlie Brown, we’re no stranger to your predicament. Dialogue and a sense of being human are lost on us in the name of education.

But we’re not the ones that sound subhuman. In the end, we all lose a sense of who we are in structures of learning rooted more as mere objects than subjects of intersecting relationships that enhance and bring about something new.

Humans aren’t created to live without questions. From our earliest days of voice and words, we ask questions.

“Why is the sky blue?”

“Why is daddy my daddy?”

“Where do babies come from?”

But the questions that can drive parents nuts or lead to shades of red when a culture’s sense of private matters are asked within hearing length of public ears, they get shoved around. They get revalued.

Questions are asked when one in power allows you. Questions are allocated spaces that are deemed appropriate.

But before any adult enters a classroom, they are a child who asks questions.

The classroom — and any sphere where humans interact — needs space for human beings to ask questions.

Understand human learning

Simply put, adults learn best by having the opportunity to have answered the questions they are asking. If they aren’t asking the question, it is not the role of the one who is labeled “teacher” or “expert” to talk away.

Questions beget questions. What classes or lectures do you most remember?

Most likely it was one that gave you the space to question, to explore, to self-discover. It was a space where you were allowed to fail and learn from it.

Within my mass media degree program, an entire course was structured around writing news articles — without having any prior experience. The class was designed to learn by mistake, to ask questions as they arose and to apply immediately upon simple concepts until students were writing appropriate articles of greater complexity.

Yet too often, those of us in the classroom and spheres of dialogue, think it best to write the stories of others, for others.

This is stifling. Reductionistic. Watered-down human potential.

How do humans flourish toward what we are capable of? Here are a couple of ways to mute Chuck’s teacher in all of us.

Open your questions

Let go of control. We all have the tendency of being control freaks when it comes to questions.

Here’s what I mean: Simply asking questions does not make it a good question.

“Want to go to the movies?”

“Is it raining outside?”

“Am I right?”

These are known as closed-ended questions. They lead to only a “yes” or “no” response.

No, I don’t want to go to the movies.

Yes, it is raining.

Yes, you are right.

With that question, you will never know what likes that person might have other than the movies or what motivates their “no” in that moment.

It takes away relationship. It reduces the dialogue only to you as the provider of ideas and words, not giving the other a platform to work with you to create something.

A better set of question asking begins with who, what, where, how, and when.* These are known as open-ended questions because they do not allow for a simple yes-no answer.

*Try to avoid why, because why can constrict creativity and dialogue. It often is a question that leads to defensiveness.

But beware, Chuck’s teacher can easily creep into these questions too. Like the examples above, you can still ask open-ended questions that move the person to still only answer as you deem fit:

“How does it sound to go to the movies?”

“Where is it raining?”

“Who is right?”

Creative dialogue lets both parties add vocabulary and experiences.

“What are some ideal activities to do here in March?

“What has the weather been like the last few months?”

“How can we approach this disagreement?”

These questions expand what you are seeing. The drought experienced before all of this rain. The amazing improv studios that support local art. The ways pride charged the argument.

Sometimes though, the step after asking is even harder.

Embrace silence

For every word you say, one less can be spoken by another. Today, American society is rampant with white noise.

Everyone has something to say, tweet, cast, blog, vlog, ‘gram, snap, marco, and share. It’s my right to express.

So, true, but not to the point of becoming echo chambers of thoughts that only agree with the voice inside your head. This is the reason behind freedom to express these things in the first place.

What does it look like to listen? To learn?

One of the best ways to protect dialogue is in choosing to let others speak first. And more likely than not, because so many of us are conditioned to expect someone to speak immediately, we need to embrace that proverbial turtle.

You know what I am talking about: the awkward moment of silence after asking a question.

This might inadvertently be the best dating advice out there — in an article about education: Don’t scare your potential date with answering their question before they have a chance to reflect. Humans all have minds that are effectively efficient at processing information; give the mind inside of the other time to reflect on all the previous information they have collected for many trips around the sun.

The implications in this are true not just for those on the dating scene but even to broader topics like intercultural relations. From awkward dates to microaggressions, insecurity stemming from a fear of one’s own value or projection of worth seeks to fill the void as soon as possible, to the point of saying stupid things that lead to no second date and insult.

Humble yourself

At the core then, whether it is the opening professor who monologues, the potential date giving answers to their own questions, or you as the [coworker, neighbor, spouse], we have to come to this belief that I don’t have all the answers — and be okay with it.

Sure, dialogue works best where both parties hold this same belief, but the one thing you can control is how you will handle yourself in any dialogue. We have much to learn from children after all.

How beautiful is that? Children ask questions that adults speak into, shaping and molding them as human beings. In adulthood, as power, scarcity mindsets and commodification further shape who we are, children then are there to remind us a better way: acknowledge you don’t know everything in asking.

When we do, as humans, we rediscover and discover even more the beauty of human interactions, the environment in which we live and the capacity we have in ourselves as we seek to better understand and learn the capacity in others. Often then, learning to ask others questions begins with asking questions about ourselves to know our proclivities, motivations and fears.

Around creating space for asking questions and being asked questions, it is no wonder mental health and meeting with counselors and therapists is such taboo. To allow the space for someone to ask the questions and better see the world is a scary thing.

But it doesn’t have to be. There is liberation for you and me alike to be okay with it and allow input from outside ourselves.

We can’t know what we don’t know. That’s the power in community and a catalyst to greater human flourishing as each member is equally valued in speaking into and learning from.

What are your thoughts? No, seriously. Let’s reshape our world starting with dialogue here.

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Lane Lareau

Lane Lareau

Husband, dad, peacemaker, storyteller || Empowering spaces for flourishing || He/him