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What Makes a Good Question?

four ways to "seek and ye shall find"

What Makes a Good Question?

My previous post on questions was lyrical and didn't go into practicalities. I notice that interviewees on podcasts and telesummits, etc., respond "Good question," almost reflexively, to every question asked, so that "good question" is about as bleached of meaning as other fillers and time-buyers like "I mean," "you know," "like." 

But the truth is, formulating a good question is part of seeing what you believe. A good question, in a sense, creates a possible world in which its answer exists. "Seek, and ye shall find" means "the types of questions you ask, and the way you ask them, will impact the quality and specificity--and even the fact-icity--of the answer." A question is a key to  a lock, is a heat-seeking missile, is a ladder to a glass ceiling.

Of course, there are as many ways to ask a question as there are sentences that can be produced (i.e. infinite). This isn't even to talk about the what/where/when/how/why questions, or the more existential "is there a dog?" ("what question kept the insomniac dyslexic agnostic awake at night?")-type questions.

I want to ask questions that are keys to unlock doors that open on worlds of abundance, potential, and personal responsibility. I want to ask "why me?" not from the standpoint of a victim but from that of someone taking charge.

Here are four attributes necessary for a question like that--four "S"s: Scope, Significance, Steering, Silence.

All four of these are present in the following question, which  I love. It's pinned to my front door so that I see it every time I go out. I don't recall who formulated it, so if it's yours please accept my homage:

How can I be even more aware of the limitless opportunities that surround me in my life right now?

This question works with Scope by setting parameters--"my life," "right now." The question isn't a vague "how can I find exciting new things?"--it's contextualized to a specific time and a specific individual.

So, I'm joining the team on a new translation project that involves German, and my German has gotten rusty. Working with scope, instead of asking "how can I refresh my German?" I might ask "what can I do today to refresh my German verbs (or vocabulary, etc.)?"

The question works with Significance by showing that the subject is important--"How can I be aware...in my life" There's not much point asking such a question unless you care about the outcome and answer. On the other hand, I have often found that taking the time to ask such a question is a way to remind myself that I do care. Sometimes, making it about myself can be what makes it significant. Sometimes, making it about myself is actually the portal toward making it be about service to a greater good.

This question works with Steering in that it contains within itself the nature of its answer, in its presuppositions. "even more aware...the limitless opportunities that surround me..." The question says "I am already aware of this abundance," so I'm not asking to create something out of nothing. The question says "limitless opportunities surround me, and I know this." This is a very different key to a very different door than "How am I ever going to find a job in this depressed economy?" but the same person in the same circumstances might ask either question.

Steering/presupposition is so pervasive in how we question. Ancient Greek and Latin actually have specific particles to indicate whether a "yes" or a "no" answer is anticipated by the question; languages that don't have specific words like this (like English) do a similar thing with tone of voice, or by maneuvers like "Isn't it impossible to...?" "Wouldn't you say that..." "amiright?"

I've been paying attention to how I'm "steering" in questions I ask. I've been aiming not to steer or presuppose, and instead to keep a listening, open quality. So "how am I going to pay the rent?" could be said presupposing hardship and difficulty and victimhood. Or, with a different tone of voice, the same question could be asked with a spirit of curiosity and exploration.

Which brings us to the fourth feature. The example question makes use of Silence as a culmination of the other three features. The question establishes a scope within which is asked, and a sense of interest and significance. It carefully steers the presuppositions it contains, managing emotional tone and a sense of the sort of outcome that would be desirable. 

And then, it stops setting parameters and invokes silence. You have to know what you want and why. Ideally, your emotional attitude toward the question is one of responsibility rather than victimhood. But then, having built the ladder and climbed it, having crafted the key and put it in the lock, having knocked at the door, you have to surrender to the question you created, be in the space of it, in silent homage to the limitless opportunities, in silent receptivity to guidance for how to impose your own limits and lock onto your own ideal opportunity for this here, this now.

Picture attribution: Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

Ela Harrison

Ela is a wordsmith and herb lover who has lived in many places and currently resides in Tucson, AZ.

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