smoke and questions

There’s a book in this, so I won’t do the subject justice in a single post. Here’s a question to start:

Why is it that we all respond to questions as though we have to answer them? Is it because of conditioning? Or is it that we are afraid of looking stupid?

Whatever the reason, questions have a powerful effect on us. They provoke a sort of knee-jerk reaction that forces us to reply. The urge is so strong that the need to respond is greater than the content of any answer we actually dream up.

And we frequently do dream up the answer, because so many questions don’t have a single, simple explanation. Many cannot really be answered at all. Does that stop us? Not at all.

Questions are probably the most powerful verbal gambit we have. If I define them as a ‘way of eliciting information’*, then many phrases that end with ‘?’ are not questions at all, they are something else. For example:

“Why did you do that?” (accusation, dissatisfaction)
“How come you never get anything right?” (expression of anger, put-down)
“Why doesn’t the government…” (complete waste of time)
“What’s wrong with me…” (desperation, hopelessness, self-pity).

And so on. Think about the questions that you use and hear on a daily basis, and you’ll find that, as some experts might say, they are “half-arsed”; they are unfit for the purpose for which they are (supposedly) intended.

Clear and Confusing

Since questions are so powerful how come we never learn to use them well? We use badly-formed questions (those starting with “Why” for example), and frequently bamboozle ourselves and others by stringing a series of questions together, or tacking a couple of sub-questions onto the main one, as I did in my opener.

If I have succeeded in confusing you a little, I’ve made my point. If you want to be understood and make yourself understood, then give questions the respect they deserve and don’t over use them.

And here’s anther thing. Just because you are asked a question, it doesn’t mean you have to respond. You can choose to answer later (“Thanks for your question, I’d like to think about it before answering”), or not at all (“Good question, I wish I knew”). You could also respond with a question of your own (“A lot of people ask me that, what do you think?”).

Three things to consider when you hear or use a question:

  1. Is it a valid and genuine request for information? If it is something else, then respond to the ‘something else’ (underlying dissatisfaction for example).
  2. Do you want to answer it, or would you prefer not to?
  3. Regardless of the content of the remark, what is the questioner trying to achieve in asking the questions?

These are big questions, so it doesn’t end here.


* Eliciting information is only one possible purpose of a question.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.


Leave A Comment