a middleSage publication

The Art of the Question

The Art of Conversation lies within the questions we ask.

JetHawks_4_17_013A good conversation is something like a game of catch. One person throws an idea or comment to the other, and he or she then tosses it back.  If that second person doesn’t return the ball, or doesn’t return the ball well, the game ends. Both players feel awkward and wish they could be somewhere else.

Without questions in our conversation, we become twitter talkers….proliferators.  Not listeners, not interested in what the other person is saying….interested only in what we have to say.

A good conversation contains questions…from both participants.  A question, when conversing with someone, indicates I have heard you and I am thinking about what you’ve said….I need some more information, please.  It makes us feel valued within the conversation.

faceCN_1482I recently had a conversation (I’ll use that term loosely right now) with someone I hadn’t talked with in quite some time.  It was an equal exchange, but I was the only one asking questions.  “How do you like your job?”,  “How do you feel about your new responsibilities?”, and “What are the kids up to?”  Eventually, the conversation began to feel like I was playing a game of catch all by myself.

Several years ago, my husband and I moved to a new city.  I had taken a job and was desperately trying to get to know the people there.  I asked a lot of questions.  After 6 months, I was looking forward to meeting up with long time gal pals in another city.  As soon as we greeted each other and sat down for a drink, we all launched into questions we each had for the group…we were so eager to hear what each of us had to say…we asked questions…lots of them.  That’s when I became so conscious of how important the question was.  It felt SO good to be back in the land of questions!

There’s a simple business tool that helps problem solvers find the root cause of a problem.  It’s of course not for complex problems, but non the less, the exercise is very powerful and effective.  It’s called the “5 whys”.  It’s simple, but the art is in the question…5 of them, and they’re all “Why?”.

Problem Statement: You are on your way home from work and your car stops in the middle of the road.

1. Why did your car stop? – Because it ran out of gas

2. Why did it run out of gas?  – Because I didn’t buy any gas on my way to work.

3. Why didn’t you buy any gas this morning?  – Because I didn’t have any money.

4. Why didn’t you have any money?  – Because I lost it all last night in a poker game.

5. Why did you lose your money in last night’s poker game?  – Because I’m not very good at “bluffing” when I don’t have a good hand.

As you can see, in the example the final Why leads to a statement (root cause) that one can take action upon. It is much quicker to come up with a system that teaches a person to “bluff” a hand than it is to try to directly solve the stated problems above without further investigation.

When we look to engage with people, (even if it’s online) I am immediately aware of the game of catch we begin.  No Questions?  Then I’m throwing the ball, and they’re either dropping it or throwing it back at me aiming for my face.  The distinction between a conversation and someone leveling their opinions or beliefs at your face can be visceral.

ickHas Twitter, Facebook and texting reformed the social bylaws of conversation?  Have we just naturally evolved into a society that “talks, but doesn’t engage”?

Do you play catch?  Are you a question asker?


  1. […] The Art of the Question (middlesage.com) […]

  2. melinda!

    14 May

    Agreed! Sometimes I feel as if I’m interviewing someone for a news show….I’m the only one asking any questions!

    • Barbara Coleman

      14 May

      It Drives you crazy doesn’t it….especially at the Doctors Office! Thanks for reading!

  3. Nora Hall

    14 May

    I love this article. Your comments made me realize that this is a big problem for my audience, retired couples. Sometimes after being together 30+ years we think we know everything about our mate and forget to ask good questions. Do you mind if I link to this in a future blog?

    • Barbara Coleman

      14 May

      To tell you the truth Nora….I kind of started with my husband in mind. I’d love to read your post on this….link away!

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