May 15, 2012

Dating, Fatherhood, Friendship, Marriage, Relationships & Family

Listen Up! Part III: Crafting Good Questions and Responses

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Tony Valdes.

As this series on listening comes to a close (see part 1 and part 2), we should consider a few things in terms of the transition from listener to speaker.  When the time comes for the roles to shift, our responses to the messages of others will most often be one of the following: asking questions, agreeing, disagreeing, or qualifying.  It is the first and last items on that list that we will examine here.

Asking Questions

When we ask questions, we are not only showing that we are listening, but we are also helping the speaker to communicate effectively with us.  The ability to ask good questions also helps us to learn and can even have social rewards.

Questions can come in many forms.  Some are basic, others are quite demanding of both the questioner and the questioned.  As we consider how to ask thoughtful, productive questions, Bloom’s Taxonomy will be a helpful framework with which to view things.  It establishes six levels of thinking, starting with the most basic and building up to what is known as “higher order thinking.”  The levels, starting with the base, are as follows:

  • Knowledge (building awareness of a topic)
  • Comprehension (understanding a topic)
  • Application (knowledge and comprehension put to practical use)
  • Analysis (how the topic “works” and/or affects other topics)
  • Synthesis (combining knowledge, comprehension, application, and analysis of multiple topics together)
  • Evaluation (judging the value of a topic)

Higher order questions such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are not only more difficult to develop, but also more difficult to answer.  Familiarity with these levels allows us to identify where any particular question lands within the scale of complexity.  Don’t feel compelled to operate solely out of the higher level questions.  There is nothing wrong with basic questions; they form the backbone of critical thinking and daily life.  As is true of most things, a healthy balance is the key.

On that note, don’t feel the need to ask questions about everything, either.  We could think of it like we think about food: we need to eat, but we do not need to eat all the time.  We choose when to eat and when to refrain.  The same thing applies to questions.  Use your discretion.  When is it a genuine question and when are you just using a question as some sort of filler (or as a way to make yourself seem smart)?

Question Templates

When teaching my students the finer points of discourse, I provide them with a series of templates that they can use (or modify) as they continually work to improve their style and voice in writing.  The templates act sort of like training wheels on a bicycle: once you understand how it’s done, you don’t need them anymore, but while you’re learning it’s nice to have them there.

The same principle can apply for us here as we learn to ask better questions.  The templates below give us a clear framework for how to develop questions with a variety of goals, ranging from simple clarification to asking questions about questions.  Reading over the templates a time or two can prod your mind into thinking of good questions to ponder when someone is speaking, keeping you more engaged as you listen, and provide fodder for questions to pose aloud when appropriate. You’ll notice that these question templates apply much of what we just discussed about Bloom’s Taxonomy in a practical way.

I should note that I cannot take credit for developing the following templates, nor do I have the foggiest idea as to who first developed this particular set; I assume it was something I wrote down or photocopied during graduate school, but the original author has been lost to time.

Questions of Clarification

These are “basic” questions that help us comprehend meaning

  • What does he/she mean by _____?
  • What is the main point of _____?
  • How does _____ relate to _____?
  • Does he/she mean _____ or _____?
  • Could you give me an example of _____?
  • Would _____ be an example of _____?
  • Why does he/she say that?

Questions that Examine Reasons and Evidence

These are more complex questions that target why certain things are said or done.

  • How do you know _____?
  • Why do you think _____ is true?
  • Is there any evidence for _____?
  • Is there any evidence that _____?
  • What difference does _____ make?
  • What are his/her reasons for saying _____?
  • Are the reasons for _____ adequate?
  • What led him/her to believe _____?
  • How does _____ apply to _____?
  • Is there a reason to doubt _____?
  • Who could confirm that _____ is true?
  • Can someone else give evidence to support the view that _____?

Questions that Examine Assumptions

These are more complex questions that target what is being implied (things not being said directly).

  • What is he/she assuming?
  • All of his/her reasoning depends on the idea that _____.  Why is his/her reasoning based on _____ instead of _____?
  • He/she seems to assume that _____.  What is the reasoning for that assumption?
  • Why would someone make that assumption?

Questions about Viewpoints and Perspectives

These are more complex questions that target worldviews and beliefs. 

  • What does _____ imply?
  • When he/she says _____, is he/she implying _____?
  • If _____ happened, what else would happen as a result?  Why?
  • What effect would _____ have on _____?
  • If _____ and _____ are true, then what might also be true?
  • If we say that _____ is right, then would _____ be right too?
  • How might _____ respond to this issue?
  • How would you answer the objection that _____ would make?
  • How are _____’s and _____’s ideas alike?  How are they different?
  • How does _____ compare to Scripture?

Questions that Examine Implications and Consequences

These are more complex questions that target cause and effect relationships.

  • What effect would _____ have?
  • Could _____ really happen?
  • Is there an alternative to _____?
  • If _____ happened, what else would happen as a result?  Why?
  • When is _____ too much?

Questions about Questions

These are questions that allow us to evaluate the questions that we ask.

  • Can we break this question down at all?
  • Is this question clear?  Do we understand it?
  • Does this question ask us to evaluate something?  What?
  • Do we all agree that _____ is the heart of the question?
  • To answer this question, what other questions must be answered first?
  • Is this question easy or hard to answer?  Why?
  • Why is this question important?
  • Does this question lead to other important issues and questions?

Keep in mind that these may be modified to fit various situations as well as your particular style, of course, which is the beauty of templates.

The Social Benefits of Questions

Questions do not have to be used exclusively for clarity.  There is much to be said for the aphorism that a person’s favorite subject is himself.  Asking questions can be a way to clarify, a way to learn, or simply a good social tool.  People love to talk about themselves, and asking questions is a great way to show interest and develop new relationships with people.  I find that when you ask questions, eventually most people (unless they are a sufferer of conversational narcissism) will start to feel the one-sided nature of things and naturally extend the speaker role to you so you can have a turn. Since you have played the part of the gentleman, they have a desire to (and a good model of how to) show the same courtesy to you.  They will listen more attentively and will most likely ask questions in the same manner that you did.

What Is Qualifying?

Asking questions will be a very fluid, interactive time in which the role of speaker and listener will bounce back and forth quickly.  However, in the course of the conversation you will eventually be called upon to agree, disagree, or qualify on the issue at hand, whether it be as heady as philosophy or as simple as where to eat lunch.  Agreeing and disagreeing are straightforward, but qualification gives us room for a more complicated response to a speaker.

When we qualify, we are agreeing with a difference.  For example, you could agree that the public school system needs radical change, but you may disagree with the current solutions that are being implemented to achieve that goal.  It’s nice to know we have the option to qualify available to us, especially when we are concerned that listening equals complete agreement.

Qualification is also the essence of the Rogerian Method of argumentation, which I had mentioned briefly in the first installment in this series.  It will be helpful to elaborate on that now.  The Rogerian Method asks us to look at the person with whom we are arguing (or communicating) as a “colleague” rather than as an “opponent.”  Plainly stated, begin by giving the other person and their viewpoints respect.  The Rogerian Method then requires us to thoughtfully listen to what the other is saying, which, as we have been discussing, requires quite a bit of effort on our part.  The next step in the process begins our transition from listener to speaker.  We need to confirm that we have accurately understood what the other person has said, perhaps through restating the central idea(s) or asking questions to clarify.  Then, if at all possible, we want to find common ground with this “colleague” (remember, this is assuming that you have differing viewpoints and wish to persuade the other person towards your way of thinking).  Finding this common ground is a crucial step; it is a point of the topic being discussed upon which you can both agree. This can then be used as the springboard into the persuasive aspect of your response.  Starting at the point where all parties agree will make your colleague feel less defensive, and will makes your qualification–the point(s) on which you differ–seem slightly less foreign and the advantages of your perspective easier to see and (hopefully) accept.

The Golden Rule of Responding

The importance of respectfulness and tact in our responses cannot be overstated, regardless of whether we are asking questions, agreeing, disagreeing, or qualifying.  As gentlemen, we need not stoop to rude or abrasive responses.  Even the best listening can be nullified and the interaction ruined by boorish behavior.  You invest much as a listener; invest equally as much in your thoughtful responses to others.  And although most interactions call for some sort of verbal or non-verbal response, we can always choose not to respond (or to respond minimally) as common sense and discretion dictate; if we cannot show respect, it is better to step aside and maintain a dignified silence.

Concluding Thoughts

Listening can change our lives.  Learning to do it well is a significant step towards our goal to become better men.  The techniques we have examined in this series are fairly self-explanatory, but that does not mean they are easy.  Consider the sort of verbs involved with effective listening: hearing, attending, concentrating, comprehending, remembering, interpreting, re-creating, retaining, thinking, and responding (or choosing to not respond).  That’s a lot of work.  Another way to think of it is to assume that as a listener you will need to put forth 51% of the effort in the conversation.

Easier said than done, right?  It’s a long list of active steps we can take to overcome our old habits and establish new ones.  But, as the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  We have been practicing bad habits for most of our lives; good habits will not emerge overnight.  It will take time and practice, and like learning any new skill, there will be times when we will catch ourselves falling back into bad habits.  Choose a few of these areas to focus on in the next couple of weeks, and once you’ve gotten the hang of those, add a few more, and so on.  Before you know it, a whole new world will be opened to you.  And, let’s be honest, there will be people that we simply find impossible to tolerate listening to.  In spite of this, however, we can improve and reap the benefits if we’re willing to commit ourselves to genuinely paying attention to those around us.

Listen Up! Series
Part I: Learning the Manly Skill of Paying Attention
Part II: 15 Techniques to Improve Our Listening
Part III: Crafting Good Questions and Responses


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