I’ve always loved questions. I suppose it began with friendly debates about everything from baseball players to guitarists. In college, I learned that curiosity about people and a desire to not be the center of attention could both be achieved by asking questions. When my son was young, we noticed that family dinners were often dominated by conversations about work, bills, and the like. So, we created a box of about 75 questions all of us would have fun answering. Hilarious conversations ensued. We called it Table Talk.
Questions are woven throughout our days. We read interviews with notable people and answer interview questions in search of the perfect job. First dates are filled with them, and if we’re lucky, every date thereafter. There are perfunctory questions (“What movie do you want to see?”, “Did you clean up your room?”) and life-altering ones (“What did the admissions office say?”).
Naturally, all of this raises another question: What are the ingredients of a great question?
First, great questions are specific. “What’s your favorite book that you received as a gift?“ might spark more ideas than “What’s your favorite book?”. With broad questions, it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin. This is true with offers of help, too. “Would it be okay if I dropped off a meal this weekend?” is easier to answer than “Is there anything I can do?”.
Second, great questions are unusual. A predictable question almost always leads to a predictable response. Great questions beg to be answered: “What phrase would you like to print on a t-shirt?”, “What's your favorite amusement park ride?”, “What's the bravest thing you’ve ever done?”.
Third, great questions don’t make a point. There are questions that are not exactly questions: “What were you thinking?”, “Is that the best you can do?”, or the iconic film question, “How can you be so obtuse?” The best questions have more than one right answer.
Finally, great questions show that we were listening last time. We’re distracted in so many ways that undivided attention is an act of kindness and willpower. We’ve all been asked a question and thought, as the person stares at the screen in front of them, “You don’t care about my answer and won’t remember it later.” What a difference it makes when the question reveals the opposite. “Has your job gotten better?”, “Did you ever figure out who that text was from?”, “How was the concert?” rather than “What’s new with you?”
The heart of any great question is genuine, eager interest in the answer. It’s the attention every person deserves.