Not surprisingly, the topic of communication is one that is near and dear to my heart. After all, I fancy myself a writer so surely no one in my family, friends or online audience is even remotely startled by this declaration. Obviously, there are countless forms and styles of communication, each one providing fodder for discourse until the end of time: verbal communication, the ever-fascinating tactic of non-verbal communication– even absolute non-communication sends a powerful message. One of the more interesting forms in my book is the art of asking a question; verbal questioning in particular. Think about it, there are short, simple questions one can ask that can change the whole direction of people’s lives: When can you start? Will you marry me? Can you help? In basic terms, a question is an action that looks for a reply. But on a deeper and more personal level, asking a question is often much more revealing than that.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first definition of the word question, is: An interrogative expression often used to test knowledge. As a young person, I ingested this definition quite literally, and in all honesty a little fearfully. Because I was a proven terrible test taker and what if I didn’t know the answer? Plus, I found the word interrogative super intimidating. But I soon caught on to the fact that in college, asking questions was arguably the #1 method to learn more about any subject (for some mysterious and hilarious reason, this somehow never occurred to me in high school). At first, I was reluctant to appear as if I didn’t already know all the answers so therefore, was hesitant to ask questions. Gradually however, I got that questions were really no big deal: at university everyone had some, and I gratefully wouldn’t stand out in the crowd if I asked any of mine.
After I was no longer a student and presumably now equipped to take on the world, I reverted to again being afraid of looking like I didn’t know something I should know, so I didn’t ask for clarification if I needed it. I found myself pretending that I knew what someone was talking about, or understood what someone was asking me to do. I didn’t want to reveal to a single soul what I didn’t know, and this created a set of response mechanisms that did not serve me well. Due to this, many times I ended up in the exact situation I was desperately trying to avoid: looking clueless when I was attempting to do something I said I knew how to do, but for anyone watching, quite evidently did not. At all. Know what I was doing.
To compound that problem, I often didn’t think to question if something didn’t feel right or make sense. I was raised by a mom who didn’t question much of anything either; she was perfectly happy with a pat answer and seemingly did not want to know more various issues at hand. Delving deeper into certain issues did not appear to interest her at all, and looking back I think that for a while, I too adopted that modus operandi. It surely dawned on my younger self, as I watched my mother, that there were “benefits” to this strategy: if one didn’t ask, one did not have to be exposed to answers they did not want to hear, or open a discussion on a sensitive topic that one did not want to have.
To make things even more interesting, my dad on the other hand expected us to be able to knowledgeably answer any question he posed promptly, and with displeasure he would grimace at any insufficient answer. I tried not to let this bother me too much, telling myself that this was some kind of character flaw of Dad’s that had nothing to do with me. Fun fact: he came from a long line of people who also did this. The withering looks Grandpa Earl would give when I couldn’t answer a question to his satisfaction still sometimes cross my mind when attempting to answer a difficult question. Funny how these behaviors around the issue of questions and answers likely had some degree of influence on my feelings about them.
For better or worse, I still tend to interpret all forms of communication quite literally and labor over the use of exact wording to convey the intended meaning of anything. It’s crucial to my own understanding of and appreciation for any idea or concept, both when I am addressed or if I am the one addressing any situation. Let’s face it: not only does an inadequate question usually give birth to an inadequate answer, the quality of the answers one receives is directly related to the clarity of the questions asked.
The good news is, as I matured and gained a greater understanding of how the act of asking questions can at times be more powerful than their answers, over time I learned to lean into asking them like never before. Today I’m literally the annoying colleague on Zoom conference calls who always has at least one question about the idea, the presentation or the proposed new project. I am no longer afraid of revealing the shortcomings of my knowledge and intellect and better still, I’m finally unafraid to admit that I don’t know something when I don’t. And I’ve become proudly adept at developing skills to not only elevate my ability to clearly communicate, but at helping those around me do so as well. I might even be able to help you, too. Any questions?
©2022 Lisa Ihnken, All Rights Reserved; photos excepted