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Questions that are asked with genuine curiosity, with a sincere desire to gain information, are valuable tools. Questions asked rhetorically, often with the intention of insult, can be quite damaging.Too often we ask questions rhetorically to make a point. There is nothing wrong with that, is there? Well, of course not. That is, of course, not to a certain point. When rhetorical questions are thinly veiled put downs (i.e. Why did you do that?! , What makes you think this is any of your business? , How do you manage to always mess things up?), communication ceases to be a two-way exchange, becoming instead, a way to reinforce someone’s negative opinion of himself.
Consider also that rhetorical questions are a common way that we put ourselves down. (i.e. Why am I such an idiot? What makes me think that I deserve anything good in my life?)
Make a point to recognize questions that you and others around you ask rhetorically — questions directed to each other and to ourselves. Notice how often we ask a good question but then leave no space for the answer. This is a pretty good sign that a real question has not been asked. For instance, we often ask a question of someone else because we want to answer the question ourselves. I might say to you, “What do you think of this article?” And then with barely enough pause to take a breath, I continue, “… because I really like it, one of my best so far I think. One thing I really like about it is … etc.” When someone does this a lot, I think of them as one-way talking machines. Do you know any one-way talking machines?
When you ask a question, leave room for a response. Remember that a question mark is punctuation. So, punctuate. (My wife once told me she was going to give me a box of punctuation marks for Christmas. Apparently I spoke in run on sentences, for long periods of time. She might have even put it the form of a question: “Thom, would you like me to get you a box of punctuation marks for Christmas?”) Ask, pause, listen to the response. Listen with curiosity. Listening with genuine curiosity is a powerful expression of respect. Tell Mr. Assumption on your committee to have a seat; that you will not be needing his services today to tell you what everyone else is thinking. “No thanks, Mr. A,” you say, “I am going to do this wacky thing called listening. Am I crazy? Perhaps, but what the hell?”
Here are some pointers about questions and answers:
1.) Don’t assume there is only one right answer to the questions you ask. Our culture is very addicted to the idea of “right.”
2.) Remember that questions about subjective matters, such as feelings and thoughts, are not likely to have “right answers.”
3.) Contrary to popular opinion, it is perfectly acceptable to ask “why” questions. Be sure you are really asking a question though, and that you are really willing to hear an answer. Sometimes if we don’t like an answer or find it inadequate, we just ask the question again.
4.) Avoid questions that are designed solely to get people to agree with you. Be brave and risk asking questions without predictable answers. Live on the “questionable edge.”
Does this make sense? Do you think it is worth a try? What have you got to lose?
Thom Rutledge is a psychotherapist and author. For more information visit wwwThomRutledge.com