When my Dad worked for a multinational company in Hong Kong back in the 70s, the company flew in someone from the US just to give a seminar on ‘How to ask good questions.’ “Imagine that! An entire seminar just on asking good questions!,” he’d reminisce. Sometimes, he would overhear us asking for directions to an unfamiliar location and if we simply said “Where are you located?” he’d correct us. “That question won’t get you precise directions. You should ask them ‘between what and what streets’!”
He enjoyed chatting with people and asking them questions and I believe that’s how he was able to succeed in fields that he had absolutely no previous knowledge about. People, even complete strangers, enjoyed filling him in.
At a workshop I recently attended, I happened to reach out to the woman seated in front of me during a break. She started telling me about her living situation in which her daughter moved back in with her, how her daughter started her own business making all-natural personal care products, and why the chemicals in everyday products are bad for you. She went on and on and on. I was in total agreement with what she was saying but I had no chance to share my thoughts, nor did I think she was interested in them. As she rattled on about more things I can’t remember, I looked longingly at the door thinking to myself, how do I escape? She did not ask me a single question about myself.
In contrast, the people I always look forward to hanging out with are people who ask me questions. And often, they are unexpected questions (not your standard “how-are-you?” sort) or questions that are specific enough to indicate interest in my activities. Questions like, “So what is it about running that you find most enjoyable?” “How has the website you have been trying to design progressed?” “Is it your first time to try making one of those handwoven rugs?” “Are you able to find any time for yourself having to take care of the kids 24-7?”
When it comes to questions, my husband and I can’t help but remember Big Ruby. Big Ruby asks a lot of questions, so much so that the first time I met her, I wondered whether she was being critical and questioning the veracity or the accuracy of what I shared. In the middle of my stories, Big Ruby would not hesitate to ask, “What do you mean by that?” “Is there such a thing?”“Why would they do/say that?” When I shared this impression with my husband he said, “You felt the same way too?” But we soon figured that Big Ruby’s questions were far from malicious; she was just genuinely curious and interested in us and we love this quality about her.
In the language of psychologist and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, questions help deepen our love maps of the other person. A love map is essentially our understanding of the other person’s world and like a map, it can be very broad or very detailed. The early stages of dating (or friendship in general) is pretty exciting precisely because we ask each other questions to find out more about the other person. The questions make us feel valued, appreciated and cared about.
Somehow though, as our relationships age, we stop asking questions. Perhaps because we feel we already know the other person too well and we’re confident we could predict what their answers would be. Or perhaps we get busy with other ‘more important’ things and deepening our understanding of the other’s person’s world is a low priority. I sometimes wonder whether this is how affairs start. One day, we meet someone who seems more interested in us than our spouse is, who asks us questions our spouse doesn’t bother to ask anymore.
Things change. We change. I feel like a completely different person today than I was when I first met my husband, and just as regular maps need to be updated as roads, highways and landmarks are torn down or built, we need to constantly update our love maps of the significant people in our lives. A moment seared in my memory is a night two years into our marriage when my husband looked straight into my eyes and said “I have this deep desire to know who you are.” I don’t know of any other person in the world who has this insatiable curiosity about me.
We also need to update our love maps of our children. Here is a great list of questions to ask them “So how was school today?” without asking “So how was school today?” My kids don’t go you school yet but I enjoy keeping a record of the quirky things they say and do and sharing them with people who want to keep their love maps of the kids updated even if they don’t live close to us. Moment Garden is a wonderful place to do that. Sometimes, I would look backs at the kids’ gardens and recount my favorite memories of them.
And because I love good questions, here are some I have collected.
Tell me the story behind one of your scars.
What was the best compliment you have ever received?
What was the best life advice you have ever received?
What have you done that most people would think is completely out of character?
What class do you think should have been taught in high school? (or What do you wish you had learned in high school?)
What books have transformed the way you think?
What do you wish you had more time and money for?
When was the last time you were worried?
When is the last time you felt scared?
What job would you like to try, at least once in your life (and if money wasn’t an issue)?
Though an essay this short usually does not have a dedication, I’d like to give a shout out to the wonderful Kim Kokoska who appreciates good questions and asks them herself.