The Art of Asking Questions

art of asking questions

If information and knowledge is the currency of today’s marketplace, then asking questions is the means of accessing that currency, and the art of asking questions is the skill to do it well. Knowing how to ask what questions when is important in sales, management, teaching and parenting as well as learning in any field of study at any time. We ask so many questions daily that we take it for granted. But, there is art to asking questions.

There are two types of questions: open and closed. Closed questions are those that can be answered with one of three words: yes, no or, sometimes, maybe. For example: “Can you tell me the time?” Is actually a closed question because the response only calls for a simple yes or no. More often than not, people will assume the person actually wants to know the time, not just if the person is able to tell them the time. “Are you feeling OK?” is a closed question because, again, a simple yes or no is an adequate response even though the person asking the question may really want more information. Sometimes a closed question is very strategic and a precursor for more questions. For example, an attorney dealing with a hostile witness might begin questioning with a closed question: “I’d like to ask you some questions, is that OK with you?” or “Would you be willing to answer some questions I need to ask you?” In both cases a yes or no is adequate. Moreover, such questions suggest respect as they are asking permission to ask questions. A doctor may ask closed questions to help make a diagnosis. “Do you feel pain in your stomach?” or “Do you feel tired most of the day?” only require a yes or no response. By asking a series of closed questions, a doctor may be able to gather enough information to rule out a variety of diagnosis and discover the problem.

Open questions require more than a simple yes or no (or maybe) answer. They require some elaboration. And, generally, the elaboration is not nearly enough so another open question is asked – and then another. Open questions can be like “the third degree” and are sometimes referred to as interrogative questions. An example of an open question is “how are you feeling today?” A yes or no response doesn’t make sense. Of course, the most common response is “OK” which is pretty meaningless. So, if a person is really interested, they would need to ask another open ended question like “What exactly are you feeling?”

Open ended questions are used extensively in sales and negotiation to help remove objections or obstacles. For example, if a sales person hears the prospective buyer state that it costs too much, the sales person might ask “what specific features does this product need to have so you think the price is fair?” A negotiator might ask one or both parties involved in negotiation “what needs to happen in this negotiation so that you are both satisfied?” These kinds of questions are often not easy to answer and require some thought. Leaders too need to use questions wisely. Asking a subordinate a question in the right way can make the difference between allegiance and sabotage. Parents can benefit from using open ended questions with their children, particularly adolescents. A parent might ask “how can I help” or “what do you need” when inquiring about their child’s poor grades. Although those questions might only get an “I don’t know” response, that in itself is a clue and may actually be true. In such cases, a good question to ask is “can you take a guess?” That, actually, is a closed question requiring only a yes or no response. But, more often than not, a person will take it to the next step and might actually guess at an answer. The irony is that it’s not really a guess but couched in that framework makes it safer to say what they are really thinking.

Take some time and listen to the questions people ask. Listen at work, at the market, at the bank, at home…Wherever you are able to listen to others, try and pick out the open and closed questions. Then, become aware of the questions you ask and begin to use the power of asking open and closed questions more consciously and more concisely.


Are You Psychologically Fit?

Psychologically Fit

We hear a lot about physical fitness. Every town has at least one, and probably several, gyms. You see people jogging around town and television infomercials are filled with the latest workout program or gadget to help you get into shape. There is no question that physical fitness is important. But, what about psychological fitness? Are you psychologically fit?

Physical fitness can be measured in terms of weight, body fat, muscle tone, strength, flexibility, stamina, endurance, etc. How does one measure psychological fitness? Psychological fitness, or mental health, can be measured to a degree by assessing the levels of anxiety, depression, stress, self-esteem, satisfaction, positive relationships, responsibility and competence, to name a few. Clearly, a person with high anxiety levels and poor relationships is not as psychologically fit as someone with low anxiety levels and rich relationships. And, just as there are ‘workouts’ which improve physical fitness, so too there are exercises, which can improve psychological fitness.

The key characteristic of the mind is thinking. Our psychological fitness is largely determined by the ways in which we think about things. Thinking is often at the basis of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, violence, post-traumatic stress, low self-esteem and poor interpersonal relationships. Learning how to think accurately and effectively is one of the major components in psychological well-being, or fitness. Effectual thinking can promote psychological flexibility, adaptability, resilience comfort, ease and composure, all of which are ingredients of mental health. But, what is thinking? And, how do we ‘exercise’ it to make it more fit?

The first thing to recognize is that, to quote Albert Einstein, ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ In other words, psychological fitness requires a different kind of thinking than the kind we may be familiar with, especially if we are not psychologically fit. Secondly, we can understand thinking simply from the words of Plato: ‘when the mind is thinking it is talking to itself.’ The first task in any psychological fitness then is to listen to yourself talking to yourself. This may seem silly but it becomes critically important for it is in those simple sentences of our internal dialogue, or ‘self-talk’ where we find psychological fatness or unwell-being.

The content of our internal dialogue is often terribly illogical, irrational, inaccurate, invalid and faulty. But, that doesn’t matter. As the mind hears itself talking to itself in these ways, it accepts what it hears, factual or not, accurate or not. It is up to our critical consciousness to question what we might be telling ourselves and to then make adjustments to more reality based thinking. In other words, we have to begin talking to ourselves more realistically, more accurately, more truthfully. If we happen to fail in some endeavor and then start telling ourselves that we are no good, worthless, incompetent and stupid, the mind says ‘ok.’ But, those generalizations are not accurate. We may have failed in one specific task, but that in no way means we are a complete worthless incompetent failure in life! To fail at one thing does not equate to failing at everything.

Just as being overweight is often a springboard to get physically fit, so too depression, anxiety, stress, anger and generally poor interpersonal relationships can be a springboard to get psychologically fit. And, just as a coach or trainer is helpful in starting out with a physical fitness routine, so too is a counselor or therapist conversant in psychological fitness a good idea if you want to be psychologically fit.


 

The English Prime Challenge

English Prime

English Prime looks and sounds just like the everyday English language we use with family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers, with one major exception, the verb ‘to be’ and all it’s variants, i.e., is, was, am, will be, etc., are removed. By using English Prime, often referred to as E-Prime, one can communicate more clearly and realistically than otherwise. The verb ‘to be’ creates the illusion of absolute certainty and unequivocal truths. Sometimes, this is appropriate, such as the statement, the flower is planted in the pot, or when describing certain properties or qualities, such as the dog is hairy. Even then, the word ‘hairy’ can have many levels of meaning and as such is not terribly clear. When used in the context of identity, the word ‘is’ becomes very problematic. For example, the simple sentence ‘John is a troublemaker’ would appear to suggest that John makes trouble all the time everywhere. Moreover, it suggests that one’s own perception of the situation should be taken as truth, which it is not. Another person may perceive John as a goof off, but not a troublemaker.

A more accurate and realistic statement about John’s behavior might be something like, ‘the way I see it, John appears to behave as a troublemaker when at school.’ This conveys a point of view, in a given context, not an absolute universal truth; it presents an appearance of behaviors which are interpreted by the observer as being that of a troublemaker, in a particular setting; it does not imply equality between John the person and a specific set of behaviors, in a specific set of conditions. John may behave in a very helpful and compliant way with friends outside of school. John is very helpful would contradict John is a troublemaker. Which one true? Which one false? It depends on the observer, and on the context, the conditions under which those behaviors are being observed.

Let’s take another simple example: The sky is blue. Although this may seem the common experience, and does describe a property or quality of the sky, one would agree that the sky exhibits many shades of blue, at different times of the day; at night one would say the sky is black. E-Prime would remove the ‘is’ and replace it with something like ‘appears as.’ The sky does only appear as blue at some times, for many people, but not all people, at all times. By stating the sky is blue, the presumption becomes that it appears as blue for all people at all times, which it does not.

English Prime arose in the mid 1960’s out of General Semantics. Here is the main idea of General Semantics: ‘people can only know what they observe and experience when they see, hear, touch, taste, smell, think, and feel, and furthermore, that what they observe and experience can affect how they observe and experience in the future. Because each person has different experiences throughout their lives, they interpret their experiences differently’ (wikipedia.org). This way of understanding semantics (i.e., the science of meaning in language) aligns with modern quantum physics, in that the observer and the observed influence each other, that which we perceive becomes colored by the very act of perception itself. We don’t really experience an object as much as we experience our interaction with an object. Just about everything we call reality exists as a point of view, a perspective.

Another example, simple in structure and yet potent in effect, ‘I am depressed’ becomes ‘I feel depressed.’ There is a huge difference between being depressed and feeling depressed. In the former, we are identified as depressed; in the latter, we are experiencing a feeling or state of mind. Or, better yet, ‘I feel depressed when I make a mistake’ adding a context, a condition to that state of mind. And, even better than that, ‘I experience feelings I label as depressing when I make a mistake.’ The statement ‘I am depressed’ has an unrealistic absoluteness about it. Some proponents of E-Prime have stated that improper use of the verb ‘to be’ creates a kind of ‘deity mode of speech’ which allows “even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things” (wikipedia.org). Our point of view, our perspective, the ways in which we as an individual interact with our world, may appear to us as ‘our truth’ but, in fact, falls far short of Truth. Individual truth does not exist. Individual perception, interpretation, point of view and meaning does exist. Truth is; everything else: appears as. So, when you find yourself saying something like so and so is a such and such, or that I am such and such. Stop. Consider how you might phrase that using E-Prime. Take into account this idea of personal perspective, point of view, context and conditions, not an absolute, eternal fact. Up your game. Consider applying English Prime to your written and spoken words. It will require some rethinking, and rewording, of common phrases. The benefits include improved clarity of thought, speech and communication. It even has benefits in the realms of mental health. For some more information on the relationship of language and mental health, check out the blog posts Mental Health is Contained in Language, and Find The Meaning Of Your Life (In Simple Sentences).


 

The Insult Game

The Insult Game

A partial transcript from a therapeutic session around being insulted, the ‘insult game,’ and how to best respond to such verbal assaults.

Part I

Client:…So the argument got a little heated and one person in the group looked at me straight on and said you’re really very stupid, you know…and…I was dumbstruck…I didn’t know what to say…

Counselor: How did you feel?

Client: Not good. It was a bit embarrassing. All that afternoon I thought of nothing but punching them out, throwing them out the window, stomping them on the ground. I didn’t do that of course, but I was…angry. At one point, to try and overcome this feeling, I was telling myself that ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ But, it didn’t really help.

Counselor: Yeah, well it’s more like ‘sticks and stones can break my bones and words can break my heart.’ Words have power. But, the problem as I hear it is not so much what they said to you and how that made you feel, but that you were not able to respond to them at the moment, to counter what they said to you at that time. You internalized what they said and that was disruptive to you.

Client: Well, what does one say at a time like that, what could I have said?

Counselor: There are lots of ways to respond. In a sense, if you are frozen at the time, from shock, which can easily happen when you are insulted like that, especially with others present, you are not able to respond. You lose your response-abilities. You would need to have some shock resistance, and then a repertoire of comebacks. Being insulted is not uncommon. It can be a form of bullying, of one-upmanship and it can become kind of a game to play, if you know how to play it.

Client: Okay, so how do I play it?

Counselor: The first thing you need to understand is that just because somebody says something to you that is negative or derogatory, that doesn’t mean its true, accurate or factual. Do you think you are stupid?

Client: No.

Counselor: If a little 5-year-old kid came up to you and said you were stupid, would you get angry with them and want to throw them out the window?

Client: No, of course not, they’re just a kid

Counselor: And so, if an adult, a peer, says you are stupid you take it more seriously?

Client: Yeah, I guess so

Counselor: It’s pretty common for us to give over our authority to others. Its something we learn growing up. As children, we almost have to defer to the adults, to the ‘other,’ as an authority. That can carry over into adulthood and, even though we are grown up, we may still tend to defer authority to the other person.

Client: Like thinking they know more than I do?

Counselor: Yes. But, of course, they may not. Now, in the case of being stupid, there are criteria, which determines stupidity. You can objectively determine whether or not a person is stupid. Stupid is not the politically correct term to use these days. It’s more appropriate to use terms such as ‘learning disabled’ or ‘mentally handicapped.” When someone calls you stupid, they are not saying you meet the objective criteria for being learning disabled. They are just trying to put you down, and in so doing, appear to raise themselves up. It’s mean. And, it happens. So, its worth some time learning how to respond to insults.

Client: Okay. I’m game…

Counselor: Well, let’s replay what happened. Let’s say were in a group of people and I look over to you and say ‘you sure are stupid.’ Respond to that, what would you say?

Client: ummm…I would say ‘no, I am not.’

Counselor: And they then say ‘yes, you are!”

Client: ummm…I don’t know what I would say back to them then.

Counselor: Okay. Don’t feel badly; we are not educated in how to respond effectively to insults. But, we can learn. The first thing is to not shy away but to look straight at the person and know that just because they said it does not mean it is true or factual. This is very important. What we hear from others may not be factual, or accurate. You need to remember this because the foundation of the strategy I’m going to suggest is based on the idea that what you hear is not factual or accurate and must be proved to be so. From there, you can begin to take the offensive by asking questions to clarify the statement, which will begin to prove that it is not so. Let’s reverse roles so I can give you an idea of what I’m talking about. You tell me that I’m stupid. I will be you and you will be this person who said you are stupid. Okay?

Client: Okay. So….ummm…’you sure are stupid.’

Counselor: How did you come to that conclusion?

Client: ummm…’you just are.’

Counselor: You have no evidence?

Client: ‘What?’

Counselor: ‘If you are saying that I am stupid, I want to hear you prove it. Anybody can say anything but that does not make it so without evidence. What is your evidence?’

Client: Ummm…I don’t know how to respond to that.

Counselor: Okay. I think you can see how you begin to turn this around by taking the offensive and asking specific questions. This is based on what is called ‘evidence-based thinking.’ You take the offensive, and in so doing defend yourself, by being very rational and logical, and calm about it. You ask questions to understand how they arrived at that conclusion, that you are stupid. They won’t be able to and it will become obvious that the statement is groundless, baseless. Another advantage to this approach is that you are not directly defying them. If you were to say ‘no I am not’ they would come back with more force. What we fight against can become even stronger. But, what we accept loses its force. So, by accepting their statement and then inquiring about it, we prevent them from escalating and getting stronger or more insulting.

Client: hmmmm…

Counselor: You can frame this kind of question for evidence in different ways. For example, you can ask something like ‘how stupid? On a scale of 1-10, ten being the most stupidest person in the universe, where am I on this scale, according to you?’ Let’s pretend they say ’10,’ which of course is absurd. You then ask, what is the difference between ’10’ and ‘4’? At this point, they might be getting upset because you now have the upper hand. You have asked a question which they likely cannot answer. From your side, it’s all about inquiring about the details, as if you are a detective, and you actually want to understand. You want evidence. You are not opposing what they have said, you are accepting it, and inquiring about it. And, in that strategy will be the demise of the insult.

Client: I see…that will take some practice.

Counselor: yes, it will and you can work with friends; you can play the insult game where you take turns insulting each other and practicing this kind of response which asks specific questions seeking details and evidence as to the validity of the statement as the response to an insult.

Client: Okay

Counselor: And remember that underlying this whole topic is the issue of how you perceive others to be an authority. Everybody has opinions and views on things; everybody has beliefs and perceptions. When those opinions, views, beliefs and perceptions are imposed upon you, you don’t have to agree with them. You can question them and then determine if they are valid or not. Consider this quote from American journalist Russell Baker, “An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious – just dead wrong.” Throughout our school years, we are rarely taught to think critically. But, that is exactly what is needed to respond effectively to insults, along with a good dose of self-esteem. Stand up for yourself. Do not accept what others say without investigation into the facts, the evidence. For your homework, I’d like you to practice responding to insults. You can write them out as if in a script. Let’s have you do this with two insults. Let’s say somebody calls you ugly, and let’s say somebody calls you fat. How would you respond to those? We will work on that at our next session. Okay?

Client: Okay. Thanks.

Part II

Counselor: Did you get a chance to practice responding to insults?

Client: Yeah, with my brother and sister. We actually had a fun time doing it, we were laughing a lot. They are both in sales and have some experience with being insulted, and having to deal with objections a lot so I got a lot of good ideas from them.

Counselor: Excellent. Once you get a handle on this approach, it can be fun and it can be empowering because you really do take control of the situation without fighting against it. You take the energy coming at you and you use it to your advantage. Okay, so let’s play. I will insult you and you will respond as you have practiced. Ready?

Client: Yes, let me have it.

Counselor: ‘You are one of the ugliest people I have ever seen!’

Client: Are you sure about that?

Counselor: Absolutely

Client: Would you be willing to change your mind if I showed you somebody more ugly than me?

Counselor: There is nobody more ugly than you

Client: How do you know that?

Counselor: I just know

Client: I want proof, give me some evidence; otherwise, I will conclude that you really don’t’ know what you are talking about.

Counselor: You want me to prove that you are ugly?

Client: Exactly, with substantial evidence.

Counselor: Well, I just think you are ugly; I don’t need proof

Client: Well, all that tells me is what you think, not what I am. You can think whatever you want, but that doesn’t make it so.

Counselor: Okay; that is really very good. How do you feel taking that position?

Client: Strong, confident. I feel free and light-hearted, like nothing can get me down. It took a lot of work though, we practiced for hours.

Counselor: Very good. Okay; let’s take the next one. Ready?

Client: Go for it

Counselor: You sure are fat; maybe I should start calling you fatso

Client: Hmmm…well, on a scale of 1-10, ten being the fattest person in the world, where am I on that scale?

Counselor: You’re a 9, fatso

Client: And how did you determine that I am a 9 and not a 6?

Counselor: I just know you are a 9

Client: Who is a 10?

Counselor: Your mother

Client: When did you last see my mother?

Counselor: What?

Client: Well, you seem to think she’s fatter than me, by one point, when did you see her last to make that determination?

Counselor: All right. I can see you have a handle on this approach. By this time, anybody who is insulting you would stop; they would have nowhere to go; they would be befuddled, and frustrated, and probably leave. You won. You did well.

Client: Thanks. I really got into this idea of evidence-based thinking and the idea of scaling.

Counselor: Good. But, what you really got into was standing up for yourself, not accepting what somebody else says as valid right off the bat, and questioning them. You now have a few tools to question them with. And, I’d like to suggest that for homework you now practice using this approach with compliments.

Client: What?

Counselor: Practice with your brother and sister giving compliments such as ‘you are very beautiful’ or ‘you are so smart.’

Client: Why?

Counselor: Consider; we feel great when we get compliments and terrible when we get insults. But, just as insults may not be factual and are based on the perception of another person, to whom we have given some authority, so it is with compliments as well. There is a saying that goes ‘credit and blame smell the same’ meaning that both insults and compliments are the same thing in that they come from outside ourselves. A compliment may be as untrue as an insult, but we like hearing it and it makes us feel good, even if it is not true. So, just for the fun of it, and to get some more practice, use your evidence based thinking approach on compliments. In real life, the best response to a compliment is a sincere ‘thank you.’ And, the best response to an insult is the inquiry as to its validity. But, ultimately, both insult and compliment, are coming from an external source and, in that regard, suspect. Make sense?

Client: Yeah

Counselor: You are your own authority. What others may say, positive or negative, can be accepted, rejected or questioned. Questioning is a very good practice. It is an intelligent thing to do. As the saying goes, ‘question authority;’ and you can do that in a rational and diplomatic fashion with this approach to evidence-based thinking. As an aside, I can also mention that this insult game can be a particularly healthy thing to do with couples, especially in the earlier stages of a relationship. During that time the compliments are plentiful, and they are important. But, it can also be fun to insult each other, in a playful fashion, and counter them in this way. This can become a kind of inoculation. That is, it can really hurt when somebody with whom we are in a relationship insults us. By playing this insult game with a partner or spouse, we can take the sting out of it, turn it into something more lighthearted. There are times when we are frustrated or angry at our partner or spouse and what better way to express this than to set up a mock insult scene and play it out as we have done here. If done well, it can help resolve tensions and might even bring about laughter.

Client: Interesting. I will definitely keep this stuff in mind. It has been quite helpful. Thanks.

Counselor: You are welcome.


 

The Critical Thinking Cheat Sheet

Critical thinking is an imperative in an active, functioning democracy. If the people are not informed, and able to sift through the bias, innuendo, false statements and fallacies of logic, they are easily swayed and manipulated by persuasive rhetoric. Critical thinking skills are not taught in public schools; even in lower level college course, it is not a required course. It is up to each individual to begin learning what it means to be a critical thinker. The image below is a cheat sheet and can help you ask appropriate questions to uncover enough information to make an informed conclusion from which an intelligent decision can be made.

 

critical thinking