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How to ask better questions



A few years ago, a group of students at my high school started a blog inspired by Humans of New York, where they compiled photos and stories of students and teachers. I was happy about this because I love reading Humans of New York stories, stories ranging from trying to fulfill the American dream to having a mother that’s an activist to writing a play about an ex-girlfriend. However, when I looked at the blog for my high school, there weren’t the compelling stories and insights that I expected. There were just pictures of people I knew with vague generalizations such as, “I love sports at this high school and how competitive it is” and “I’ve had some really influential teachers.” 

I don’t think that the people at my high school were inherently less interesting than the people profiled in Humans of New York. The difference between these two blogs was a difference of who asked the better questions. 

I know this because I’ve spent most of my life trying to ask the right questions. When I was younger, I would make my friends play the Random Question game where I’d sit them in a circle and ask them any question I could think of. In high school, I interviewed people for my local newspaper and I now interview people for Hear at Duke. For me, the most interesting and complex challenge is getting to know one person well. But in any other challenge we face, asking good questions plays an important role. Here are three things I’ve learned about how to ask better questions.

Be indirect. People often struggle with questions like “Tell me your life story” or “What was your childhood like?” or “What’s your favorite book?” These are difficult because they require a person to both create a criteria for judging what was important about their childhood or what makes a good book and then to determine what fits that criteria. It’s much easier for people to answer questions that create the criteria for them. Instead of broad and vague questions, you could ask, “Would you want to raise your children in the place you grew up?” or “What book would you give someone as a gift?” People respond better to questions that involve hypotheticals or preferences. 

Come up with a list of questions that you could ask anyone, and be interested in the answer. My list includes: Would you like your parents if they weren’t your parents? Would you rather be the person in the relationship who cares more or cares less? What surprised you about Duke? But each person should have their own list of questions based on their own interests. I’ve been keeping a list like this for years, and it’s become a diary of curiosity. There are values and interests embedded in every question we ask. It says something about 13-year old me that I asked: Can jealousy be a good form of motivation? (answer: no). It says something about last-week me that I wrote down: When should you trust your instincts over logic? The list is also a good reminder that every person knows something you don’t, and that every person has a life as vivid and complex as your own. 

Turn disagreements into questions. While rebuttals and arguments tend to make people shut down, questions make people open up. It’s common knowledge now that the United States is struggling to embrace diversity in a polarized society. I’ve learned that the best way to combat intolerance is curiosity. If you don’t feel the same way as someone else, try to find out why through questions. It’s inevitable that you’ll connect with someone that you’re curious about. If you’re talking to someone that’s entirely different from you, curiosity means you have at least one thing in common: an interest in their life and opinions. You also learn so much more from people who have different opinions and backgrounds. By the time you find out the exact place where your opinions diverge, you have a better understanding of both yourself and the other person. 

Questions are underrated. It’s rare for someone to quote or remember a question. But it is only through questions that we get the statements that people will quote and remember. To me, the process of growing and learning a person is simply the art of crafting better questions, and I hope that this helps you do so. 

Sarah Xu is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. 


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