Children are known for asking questions – why in particular. At an open day at my youngest son’s primary school recently; one of the stalls was promoting ‘talking to your child’, and included 20 questions to get you started.
Didn’t all parents ask how the day went? Who they’d played with? What they’d eaten? I read on and found this wasn’t about the school day, it was about getting to know your child better. ‘What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?’ was countered more positively with ‘What’s the first thing you can remember?’ and so the list went on. I was intrigued and we talked through the questions over a walk home. The questions since spawned conversations within our wider family and we’ve all learned something new about each other across the generations.
This got me studying conversations I saw happening with other people – excluding those outside of the therapeutic, coaching, counselling circle - I started to see how few questions people ask each other. Conversations, I noticed in meetings, were almost purely an exchange of information and activity rather than an opportunity to challenge, probe, learn, clarify or funnel. I guess it could have been a bad bunch of meetings but the same things happened when I got together with friends who meet regularly.
Thinking back to the school example: The reason for sharing the questions was that apparently parents are glued to their smartphones, and kids are busy on their own devices – anything that involves a screen of some kind - and that the simple act of questioning of each, of learning about each other, is falling away. It seems the skill is dying but maybe technology being to blame is an excuse. It appears to happen naturally as we get older. We stop asking why.
So does this spell the end of the conversation at some point in the future? Do we only put a question out there when we need a response? Are they purely transactional? If so we risk losing the natural rhythm of learning and changing direction that happens when we sit together or talk on the phone – which is incidentally another habit that is fast expiring.. Ofcom report that mobile calls are in serious decline while texts increased to over 50 a week for the average person not including direct messages.
Is it the lack of response or the listening skills that are to blame? I’ve seen several clients this year who were looking for support because they reported feeling socially awkward. I’m not sure if it’s because there’s now a well-known term to define how they feel; or whether those smartphones are to blame again – who talks at the bus stop anymore when you can check Facebook? Who asks for directions when we have google maps? If anyone did talk to you, on the train, on the bus, who, with our music and podcasts and audiobooks, would listen?
With those who want help to feel more at ease socially, I encourage talking about the obvious factors of getting in the room or onto the call and making introductions and then discuss what makes a great question. The more we ask the more we learn and the more we show others we're interested and care.
When we engage with a confident communicator and come away from a conversation feeling good it’s often that someone’s asked insightful questions and made us feel important to them. When we’re at the top of our game asking interesting and reflective questions of others we notice we learn so much more and there is a shared feel-good factor in there too.
I’ve learnt that asking good questions is something I mustn’t take for granted – even if it’s part of my job and that I should continue to practice this within my own wider family and friendship groups. In times of declining interpersonal skills, the ability to truly ask, and truly listen, could well become something of a superpower.
Written by Maisy Maddox