The Politics of Dealing with Difficult Questions.
Posted by intellisg on August 1, 2007
Recently I posed a question “Can Someone Tell Me Why Our Scholars Aren’t as Smart as the Jews?”
As the saying goes “There are questions and there are questions.” Of course, this doesn’t necessary mean anything except to say not all questions are the same. Generally, we all know questions fall into two main broad categories. The first are ‘closed’ question like, “are you at home?” or “have you eaten?” Which usually requires only a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no” to answer.
The other is the ‘open ended’ question which usually requires a fair amount of elaboration, like “why do you think pygmies are shorter than us?” I know it looks simple enough. But look again. Hardly the simple Simon run-of-the-mill line of questioning one associates with a ‘closed’ question of closed. If we aren’t careful ‘open ended’ questions can all too easily be transformed into a lightning rod attracting loads of controversy. Such as the open ended question: “Can Someone Tell Me Why Our Scholars Aren’t as Smart as the Jews?” This brings into question: how do we successfully deal with the politics of ‘open ended’ questions? Is there some etiquette that goes with it?
Before we dive into the deep end. I need to warn you all posing an ‘open’ ended question can be hazardous to your health. It’s a bit like signing on the dotted line. That’s the cue for the guy to start telling you all the things you wished he told you before you signed.
In the words of one poster who wrote to me recently:
“Darkness when you ask an open ended question like why are Jews smarter than scholars. I am sorry but you have more or less relinquished your rights – that’s to say your right to say ‘no’ and ‘but’ along with everything that goes with it. Really, it’s a bit like joining the French Foreign Legion……you don’t even have anything even close to a choice.” Another poster retorted when I insisted on just a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no. “Darkness, you shouldn’t have asked an open question then! What did you really expect *%^$?You have to listen to me whether you like it or not, you *&%#@%%#@!”
As much as I would like to say these poster’s bordered on the extreme to the radical – how justified are they to insist that once a person floats an open ended question – he has more or less relinquished his rights? You know what I took the trouble to find out by examining the etiquette of conversing and guess what: they’re absolutely right. Asking an open ended question is nothing short of ‘an invitation to treat” in legal terms. Mark Twain even affirmed this, “…..it’s a right of easement that cannot be refused.” That means it usually requires elaboration from the person who is questioned, only because it’s not so much a question as it is, as Theodore Rozak said, “a play on King Lear’s dictum: “…and let us take upon the mystery of things…”
Let’s freeze this frame for a moment and stand back. And ask ourselves what’s happening here? All I did was ask a simple question. Hey all I wanted was a simple answer. You telling me now, I have no rights to even tie my shoelaces and I have to sit down and listen to you, while I pretend to be interested when I actually lapsing into a comatose state? Come on! Besides why is this so important? Well consider this – knowing how to respond to ‘open ended’ questions allows you to field them effectively – it’s nothing short of survival tool these days. Knowing how respond to ‘open ended’ questions pays out dividends. In life no one gives you anything, you only get what you negotiate for.
This takes us one step deeper into the science of conversing.
First of all I want you to get one thing out from your head. There’s nothing simple about even asking a simple question: as much as we all like to believe it’s simple. It’s actually quite a complicated affair. Though the art of conversing comes intuitively to most of us without consciously having to think about it, that’s where the where dangers lie. Like all things benign there are always hidden dangers. The simpler it is the more dangerous it is – I know people die from terrorist blowing up buildings, but not nearly as many as those who die from slipping on simple wet bathroom tiles or suffering heart attacks from regularly consuming simple artery clogging hamburgers.
Some people will say, if ‘open ended’ questions are so dangerous, lets keep it simple, let’s just stick to ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Surely that can get us into trouble, right?
The problem there is what happens when we are confronted with certain scenarios where depth and insights are required such. In those situations where there is need to get hard nosed information, asking ‘closed’ is as good as asking nothing. It can’t really be done in the real world! Not successfully at least. I don’t doubt automated telephone receptionist designers may tell you otherwise only because they don’t know how many times we have said, “all I got was a machine on the other side!” only to hang up.
I am not saying there is no place for ‘close questioning,’ of course there is if we are really serious about time management and how to dedicate ourselves effectively on a day to day basis. Asking closed questions in rapid successions can go a long way to identify the types of symptoms being encountered. Only one needs to appreciate where it ends and where there’s a need to switch gears to asking ‘open end’ question, if we want to really get a handle on the problem or try to carve out the best solution out the problem. This is where most of us fail, not because we are dumb or even for lack of imagination – the reason according to psychologist, is because we don’t really know when one should fade out to allow the other to step in and vice- versa. We all know open ended questions remain the best means of teasing, coaxing and winnowing out the finer details of the why’s, when’s and how’s – we all know ‘closed’ questions do a good job in pointing us to the right direction. But when it comes to using both of them in conversations, it all gets blurred up and cloudy. Is it such a wonder that we usually find ourselves in sticking situations? Worst still with a shoe stuck in our mouth?
This raises the question: how do we successful navigate our way through the no-man’s land of asking ‘open ended’ questions without getting embroiled in controversy? Can this be successfully done?
Yes but before we learn this trick, we need to appreciate a few truths: firstly most of us don’t listen to gather information as much as we listen to confirm our world view. This means we even commit the sin of assuming along with filling-in-the-blanks – think “conspiracy” and the next word that comes along will probably be “theory”, 9 out of 10 times. Don’t bother figuring out, how that word connected itself, that’s the way, we are hardwired. Now if you don’t believe me, I can prove it to you by conducting a simple experiment: what if I said to you, I can successfully guess the first color that comes into your mind? I want you to write it down now – the color and the end of this article, I am going to guess it.
This just means we need to be very mindful of the way we pose a question. Some open ended question just produces a defensive attitude. I realized this when I posed this question to a poster, “you hate my article? Are you a scholar?” To which she replied, “What’s that got to do with my line of argument?”
So it’s important to understand even if you’re asking an open ended question only out of curiosity and you have not intentions of establishing a point – it can be construed negatively and all their defenses goes up. For example: one could be interviewing a female prospective candidate for a job only to ask, “by the way, how many kids do you have?” The suspicion that builds up in her head is, “that scumbag wants to know whether I am going to bail out on him when I go on maternity leave!” See what I mean you just stepped on it – it blow up!
I realized this early on in life and this is where I am going to share with you a technique that I always use before I ask a question, open or closed – I don’t have a name for it, except to call it ‘preparing the ground.’
One good way of ‘preparing the ground’ is removing the suspicion from the onset by making it clear you are asking a question because you’re genuinely curious and not because you have an issue involved with the question, make that point clear when you ask. I would even go as far as to say even take to trouble to preface that kind of question with the following statement: “You know what, I have the same problem all the time and it’s only out of curiosity, but how would you deal with it?” That’s better than, “so what you going do about it?”
The good thing about this trick is it even allows you to ask really stupid questions without coming across as patronizing. Which often results in a defensive line like, “You know what Darkness, I have always suspected you suffer from some psychological chip on your shoulder, tell did you have a happy childhood? Because it is quiet clear to me, you are trying to patronize me with this stupid line of questioning. You *^%#@%^!”
In such cases, I recommend using the sacrificial lamb or scape goat technique, trust me, if you learn and master this, you could really get ahead in life. As the term implies a large part of this technique depends on putting all the blame on someone else. For example, you might preface the question with, “I’m sorry, but I just need to ask a few questions just to make certain you’re not another righteous elite bitch like Miss Wee…”
Of course through the years, I have amassed quite a compendium of nifty techniques which allows me to navigate this minefield of asking questions. I am just sharing a few tips with you to put across my main message: the need to appreciate the politics of questioning. As I mentioned earlier there is certainly etiquette involved here along with politics, but if I had to plumb to choose either to ask an open or closed question. I would still choose the former, only because it offers a chance to learn from others and that’s better than posing a closed question, only because it’s as good as talking to yourself. And we all know that’s no fun.
Blue – that’s the color!
(This has been brought to you by your friendly brotherhood controller, Aurora / By Darkness / Astroboy – The Politics of Questions – ES 2998278P – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
23 Responses to “The Politics of Dealing with Difficult Questions.”
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.