You are here
Asking questions that get real answers

Asking questions that get real answers

“We all think you’re a member of the CIA,” my friend’s meditation group informed her. Yes, it might seem odd that, even at 85 years old, she lives alone outside of town, takes frequent flights around the US, and drives across the southwestern desert in her Jeep.

But their suspicions came about in good part because my friend does not like to answer bad questions, and so she often evades them with the nonchalance of a spy. When the group was asked to go around and say their names and “a bit about themselves,” she gave her name and then – instead of sharing the number of years she had been meditating – simply stated that she’d lived in the area for a few years.

And indeed, rote, meaningless questions often elicit, and I think deserve, rote, tired answers. How often can I, who moved to Toronto from the US last August, genuinely answer the question, “How are you finding Toronto?” (That phrasing is by far the most common.) How many times does the recent high school (or college, or PhD) graduate really want to answer, “So, what are you going to do now?” Are aid workers tired of the bland question, “How was [Haiti, Kenya, Peru, etc.]?”

It’s not bad to ask questions about any of these topics. Usually we ask because we are sincerely interested in someone’s response to a new city, hopeful about their next job, and curious about far-off countries.

But how can we form better questions to encourage genuine conversation and more reflective answers?

Better questions about travel often ask people to relay a single story from the trip. Travelers will no-doubt have funny, scary, or crazy stories that are unlikely to be shared in answer to a generic, “How was the trip?” question. Instead of accepting the answer, “the people are so great there,” probe further to see what made them great. An entertaining New York Times travel article created a taxonomy of “world’s friendliest people,” encouraging more precise descriptors. Were they welcoming, friendly, not as bad as you’d thought? Better questions will get at these interesting distinctions.

Another way to get better answers is to give people time to think before they answer. The extra moment of thought might cause the answerer to shake off their memorized answer about the great transit system, the amazing health care system, blah, blah, blah, and bring up more interesting stories of finding the swing dancing community and shopping in Italian corner markets. Be warned, once we ask the question and tell them to take a moment to answer, we better be willing to listen when the reply comes out.

Carefully preparing and thinking about questions is how my peer coach and I have structured our biweekly calls. A few days before each call, we email each other with issues we’re having or about areas in our work we’d like to improve. This helps deter just complaining about work, redirecting us to topics where we can actually coach each other. Or maybe this format just works because we’re both type A (in a good way).

Forming good questions is also crucial for receiving good information from grant partners. A grant report form that asks, “How is the project going?” will get a dull answer and, “How have people benefited?” is both a vague question and a leading one. Again, asking for stories and letting them know we’ll have follow-up questions can create an evaluative dialog, rather than a useless (for both parties) report.

We’re pretty programed to ask people what they “do.” With so many people piecing jobs together, and the indescribable nature of many “development” jobs, this question may be a conversation stopper rather than starter. When I asked my post-PhD friend about her future plans she answered that she’s in “transition.” Even my bad question led to a interesting discussion about what she might be transitioning to and what she’ll bring from her PhD to a new job.

If you really want to get to know someone, Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk and mystic, suggests, “ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” And, in answering the person can clear up that no, they are not with the CIA; they just were waiting for a good question.


The following two tabs change content below.
Tanya Cothran is the Executive Administrator at Spirit in Action, an international micro-grant organisation working in East Africa. Trained as a librarian, she finds satisfaction in tracking down bits of information. Tanya is working on a book of essays, "Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems," with 23 other international development professionals. She holds a B.A. in Geography from UC-Berkeley and a Master's of Library and Information Science from St. Catherine's University, and she lives in Toronto.

Latest posts by Tanya Cothran (see all)

Related posts

7 thoughts on “Asking questions that get real answers

  1. Hey Tanya. Thanks for this post. I know I’m hopeless at asking interesting questions so the reminder to not be lazy is a good one.

    On the other side of the conversation, I’ve noticed that most people really struggle to engage in an experience outside their own world which can make those returning to their home culture feel very isolated. I always encourage returnees to prepare some answers to those mundane questions in advance (not quite in Weh’s tone 🙂 but in a way that generates further conversation. For example, ‘how was it?’ can be answered ‘challenging/inspiring/freakingly mindblowing!’ with a short quip why followed quickly by some question to engage them like “what have you heard about that country?”. Then try and affirm even one small part of what they have heard that is accurate. There’s no need to wait for intelligent questions to start a meaningful conversation.

    What has been your experience of this?

  2. Brilliant piece Tanya. I agree that the questions asked really determine the depth of answers. Which is why I wonder if it is our duty as development workers to steer the conversation into more depth. Point in case, recently I was sitting on a plane heading to Cambodia when the two people next to me were talking about how they support projects in the country. Although their background was in finance, they kept talking about how they believed that the best way to solve poverty was so and so, and therefore, they only gave money to so and so type of projects. It became pretty clear to me that they hadn’t done much reading or consultation on the topic, and they were only saying these things out of some hunch. Essentially, it was an uneducated view.

    Ordinarily, I tend to bite my tongue a little when people sprout off about stuff they don’t know anything about, but this time, I couldn’t resist, because they asked me soon after – what are some of the greatest challenges that you face in Cambodia?

    My answer (which on reflection seems a little blunt) was: “Mostly, it’s donors who think that they know how to do development better than those who work in the field or better than Cambodian people themselves.”

    The discussion did carry on from there, and to their credit, they genuinely did seem to want to engage on “what people really needed”. However, I do believe when we engage with others on a shallow level, or if there are assumptions that are simply correct, we should butt in and correct them, even at the risk of sounding rude, or dissipating the warm fuzzy feeling that folks already have.

    Finally, in terms of how to deal with the questions that people continually ask which are predictable, there is also this guide 😉

    1. I completely agree, Weh. I love the guide you linked there because it’s funny and also because the answers are honest, even when the questions are dismissive.

      Sometimes I hesitate to butt into way-ward conversations about “charity” because I worry that too aggressive of a response can turn people off even more. So we need to engage in those conversations with respect for the person we’re talking to; gearing the conversation to “where they are” in understanding the complexity of helping, serving, poverty, international relations, etc. And asking real questions about how they arrived at their current understandings.

  3. I like this post but can’t help but point out that your friend may indeed work for the CIA. I don’t know if that’s been addressed on this blog, but there really are CIA agents (or other intelligence people) posing as development workers, and this really does affect how development workers are viewed. No, I’m not paranoid. But I do live in the Middle East.

    1. She’s actually not in development. But I take your point, Nora. We can never know and even the best questions won’t get at some answers we are seeking.

  4. Great and thoughtful post Tanya! I am going to take you up immediately on your advice and ask you, “what motivates you in your personal and professional life?” “When have you failed and what did you learn from it?” “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” 😉

    1. Great questions! Let’s me think about them and get back to you. 😉

Comments are closed.