When I grow up, I want to be a better question asker

I find it hard to sit still, remain quiet and wait until my interlocutor has finished offering her opinion. Over the years I have tried jotting down notes, finding something to do with my hands so that I don’t get my fingers bloody with contradictions going on in my head. More often than not, even if I managed to wait until the person talking finished making their point, it would be my intensity that would sabotage my answer. The fire of my wanting to impose my point of view would have burned through several stages of the dialogue, most of the conversation would have already taken place in my head and, opening my mouth, I would generally burn many bridges. I watch myself in conversations and I can see that I interrupt more often than not, I listen to respond rather than understand and that, whoever is on the other side of the table or screen, can often see all of this on my face. Definitely not the person or the conversation partner I want to be.

If I were to explore the reasons for these, I would get to the intersection of not feeling good enough and constantly wanting to prove myself, fear of missing out and a lack of open mind towards the fact that others, holding opposing views, may be right as well. All the good stuff. The thing is, all these roads intersect into a point I find myself alone, bitter, continuing conversations in my head for days, feeling equal parts wrong and wronged. Draining, really. And absolutely not productive.

When I grow up I want to be a better question asker. One of the podcasts I love to listen to is A Slight Change of Plans, hosted and created by Maya Shankar. In a conversation with Adam Grant, they explore the science of changing people’s minds by asking questions. It reminded me of Adam Grant’s genius book, Think Again, where he talks about motivational interviewing. And there is a very important prerequisite to that:

Motivational interviewing starts with an attitude of humility and curiosity. We don’t know what might motivate someone to change, but we’re genuinely eager to find out. The goal isn’t to tell people what to do, it’s to help them break out of overconfidence cycles and see new possibilities. Our role is to hold up a mirror so they can see themselves more clearly, and then empower them to examine their beliefs and behaviors.

Think Again – the power of knowing what we don’t know, Adam Grant, pg. 147

It is very important that this practice not be tokenistic. It must involve genuine curiosity, active and reflective listening, asking open ended questions and a willingness to change on both parts of the table.

If you think changing your uncle’s mind at the Christmas dinner table about gender fluidity is hard, try changing the minds of KKK afficionados or anti vaxxers on extremist ways of thinking and being that they had been entrenched in for years. This is what the author includes in the book as examples – quite mind blowing.

The catch though is always honesty, bringing with it the willingness to change on the part of the question asker. The practice is not only meant to change our interlocutor’s mind. We might (or dare I say will) find ourselves changed in the process as well.

[…] the technique shouldn’t be used manipulatively. Psychologists have found that when people detect an attempt at influence, they have sophisticated defense mechanisms. the moment people feel that we’re trying to persuade them, our behavior takes on a different meaning. A straightforward question is seen as a political tactic, a reflective listening statement comes across as a prosecutor’s maneuvering, an affirmation of their ability to change sounds like a preacher’s proselytizing.”

Think Again – the power of knowing what we don’t know, Adam Grant, pg. 155

Motivational interviewing requires a genuine desire to help people reach their goals.

Think Again – the power of knowing what we don’t know, Adam Grant, pg. 155

… and, I would add, being open to your own mind changing in the process.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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