The Art (?) of Asking a Question

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Graphic from Signalvnoise.com

Class ended. Mercifully, after two and a half hours of policy analysis and evaluation, it was time for lunch. A group of six of us, all full time graduate students at Columbia, had a habit of going to the diner a couple of blocks down Amsterdam Avenue after class.

I gathered up my stuff and started walking with the others to the elevator when Dan nudged me to get my attention. Dan, who wore crisp oxford shirts and chinos to class and spoke with authority, asked “Why do you always apologize before you ask a question? I don’t get it.” I looked at him blankly, “Huh?”

He continued, “You always start your question, in class, by apologizing for it. Like, ‘Sorry, but I was wondering…’ Why do you do that?” There was more than a trace of annoyance in his tone.

I felt defensive. I thought for a moment, as we continued walking, trying to come up with an answer. Fortunately, the others in the group were chatting amongst themselves.

“Well,” I began, “I can’t say I consciously knew that I did that….” I was thinking quickly, reviewing what had happened in class that may have triggered Dan’s observation, trying to come up with some kind of reasonable response.

“There’s no reason for it, you shouldn’t do that.” he said, emphatically. “Sorry if it annoys you,” I responded, and I sped up to join the others. I probably annoyed him again by apologizing again.

This happened over 35 years ago. I thought about it then, and I still reflect on it now. Asking questions, in class or in conversation, isn’t that simple. At least not to me.

As I thought about it, many things came into play. First, was self-consciousness and insecurity. Maybe I HAD missed something the professor said. I knew some students, as a result of those doubts, didn’t ask questions. I had enough confidence to ask, but not enough to not preface it by hedging or softening it. I realized, as Dan pointed out, that I likely did start with something like, “Sorry, maybe I missed this, but can you explain….” I wondered whether there was anything so wrong with that.

I don’t think it occurred to me at the time, but it did years later, that it also probably related to being female. I knew that as a woman there was a line to walk, of not coming across too aggressively, but not fading into the woodwork, either. I had a hard time with that. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted to express opinions, but I wanted to be feminine, too. I think I felt that asking a question could be threatening and that was the last thing I wanted to communicate.

Other things probably played into it, too. When I was in college, Merle, my roommate, and I volunteered to work at the campus hotline, called High Hopes. It was a resource for students to call if they had questions. The question could range from the ordinary, like where to get birth control, to the very serious, like what to do about feeling depressed. We went through fairly extensive training – we weren’t supposed to be counselors providing therapy, but the hotline was a first line of getting someone help if they needed it. Some of the training involved attending lectures, getting information about drugs, sexuality and other common issues of concern to college students. We also learned about non-judgmental ways of listening to people and we did role plays.

We were trained, in a basic way, to use Carl Roger’s technique of reflection, which meant listening to the caller and repeating back what you heard them say. This method was intended to help the person clarify what they felt. Sometimes a person didn’t know exactly what they felt, so by reflecting back what you hear, he or she can evaluate whether it is accurate.

In addition, in reflecting, we were trying to refrain from judgment. Sometimes just asking a person ‘why’ can insinuate judgment. If we needed to ask the caller for more information, we weren’t supposed to ask, “Why do you feel hurt (or substitute any other emotion, angry, sad)?” It was better to say, “It sounds like you feel hurt. Can you tell me more?”

This made so much sense to me. I had a number of opportunities to use that approach on my shifts at High Hopes and, generally, it worked quite well. It turned out to be useful in parenting, too.

Leah was quite an emotional child. Supporting her through the roller coaster of adolescence was a parenting challenge. I was most effective when I remembered to use reflection (full disclosure: I didn’t always remember). It validated her feelings, helped her clarify them and often led to insights. I recommend it!

While that technique doesn’t exactly apply to asking questions in a classroom, which is what my classmate Dan was calling me out on, in one respect it does. As a result of my High Hopes experience, I became conscious of not implying judgment in a broader sense – I didn’t want a professor to think I was questioning their expertise, or suggesting they were a lousy teacher. It seemed like a reasonable strategy to start by acknowledging that I could be wrong or uninformed.

Before Dan’s comment, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, much less considered that there could be a downside to doing it. But I was learning that there was. If Dan was any example, it could be annoying. It also diminished whatever came after the apology, I was devaluing my own contribution. I didn’t want to go around apologizing for my existence. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve done it less.

This issue is relevant in another setting. As a school board member, and as a trainer of school board members, this aspect of communication comes up often. Frequently at board meetings a staff person makes a presentation and the board is given the opportunity to ask questions. This can be a minefield. A board member can, premeditatedly or thoughtlessly, embarrass the presenter by asking a pointed question. So much transpires in this communication. There can be history or baggage – is there goodwill as a baseline between the board and the staff? A particular presenter can be overly sensitive to questions. Some people are comfortable with public presentations and thinking on their feet and welcome engagement in the form of questions; others don’t. Even educators, who spend their day teaching, get nervous when speaking in front of the school board. We spend time at our workshops talking about modes of communication in order to raise awareness of potential pitfalls. I imagine this dynamic comes into play in many office settings. Who knew asking questions could be so fraught?

So, I’m still thinking about this issue. How do you ask a question?

5 thoughts on “The Art (?) of Asking a Question

  1. About two months ago I read a column online (I forget where) where the writer talks about the difference between sorry versus apology. The word sorry in most cases is a sign of weakness where apology does not. Most often this occurs in terms of a business or office setting, or a class room. For example, you’re 10 minutes late to a 9:00 AM meeting. Reason being there was a car accident at the highway exit that delayed you the 10 minutes. You arrive at the meeting most ofter saying sorry for being late there was a car accident…..rather than saying apologies for being late there was a car accident…..Although you think you’re conveying the same reason for being late the difference in the two words are received differently. Apology establishes an equal footing for you entering the meeting whereas sorry sets you back a bit.

    Have you noticed when prominent people are confronted in the media, social or otherwise, they most often use the word apology rather than sorry, for whatever action they committed. Again it is because of how the two words are interpreted where apology does not carry the same negativity that sorry does.

    Early on in my business career I was given the opportunity to attend a management training program for four days offsite conducted by a third party. I was coached on how to present, what to wear, filmed giving a presentation, etc… One of the suggestions given to me and the other attendees was not to use the word sorry. Never thought of it before that on how often I had used the word, which was quite often.

    Present day, on a new job started this past January I have been taking a number of company “learning modules” when the module talks about customer complaints the response the company wants me to do is acknowledge the complaint and move onto resolutions without saying sorry.

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  2. In med school and beyond, some people who had to present a case would start out by explaining that they didn’t have the opportunity to prepare that they would have liked to, inserting whatever excuse they had chosen. They were, I guess, trying to lower expectations but it seemed to me that they just succeeded in making people expect that their presentations would be inferior and it never seemed to work.
    In effect, it was sort of an apology ahead of time for what they feared would not be good enough.

    And I remember deciding early on, no matter how underprepared I felt I was, I would never do that. After all, you never know, they might be miss how bad my presentation was or maybe, it might not even be quite that bad.
    One related phenomenon that Leah has mentioned is imposter syndrome. I have felt that way although perhaps less as the years have gone by. All of this, it seems to me, relates to feeling inadequate, of not really belonging in the club that has already accepted you.
    While anyone might be subject to these self doubts, I think you have hit upon an important gender related issue. One of my first thoughts upon reading this wonderful blog post is that asking a question isn’t necessarily disrespectful. It may or may not be challenging and that isn’t always necessarily wrong. But, while I have sometimes felt afraid to ask, I never felt the urge to apologize for asking a question.
    Maybe part of the solution is realizing that this is a phenomenon and that people and especially women don’t need to feel that they are imposters or have less of a right to ask.

    Thank you.

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  3. The only time I’ll start a question with an apology is when I can tell that the person I’m about to ask the question of has already tried in earnest to explain what I’m about to ask about. Otherwise, I learned from performing music in front of people that an apology isn’t what people are looking for when none is called for. If I were to miss a note or forget a lyric, no one really cared and taking the time to point out the error was a bummer to the crowd. So, I dropped it.

    In a similar vein, I’ve tried to cut out “To be honest” before I say anything. To me, this implies that anything that is said without the prefix is potentially dishonest, and therefore I don’t have to say that this bit is honest and this bit isn’t; tell the truth at all times and you never have to clarify.

    Language is funny, amiright?

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