All posts by Tanya Cothran

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.

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.