May I Ask a Question?

I’ve started to think about the changes I’d like to make for myself in the upcoming year, and something in particular has come up. As a kid I asked A LOT of questions. While this exhausted everybody around me, this was my way of absorbing and processing the world. I wonder at what point I stopped asking questions and why. I think it was around adolescence that I started to keep questions to myself with self-consciousness kicking in as it does. From my recent research on communication, I’ve noticed that asking questions has become a challenge for many people. The questions I’m talking about are not limited to a classroom setting or learning environment, but I mean the questions that come up in daily life and conversations. 

University of Vermont classroom

Although I believe “how are you?” in passing has become more of a statement than a question, increasingly insincere at that, it’s also not the small talk questions fueling the sparks of a conversation that people find problematic. The questions blossoming in you that are worth examining are about any given topic, the ones that if asked might make you seem awkward, unintelligent, ignorant, or insensitive. When we have a conversation we consciously and subconsciously rely pretty heavily on the cues and feedback of others (their nods, body language, spoken response, etc.). So in trying to understand something better, we may anticipate an undesirable response from people which keeps us from asking. I see two kinds of self-awareness here: one that is fragile with your own feelings and esteem, and another that wishes not to offend someone else. They can be confused because of the focus on someone’s reaction towards you, but the former is more self-serving and validation based, while the latter is more concerned about everybody involved. Neither is wrong; they seem to be natural defense mechanisms.  

Problems I see are unwillingness to make mistakes, resistance towards the perception of misunderstanding, and avoidance of potential intolerance. So many of us seek boosts in self-esteem from the reassurance and validation of others. We like to be acknowledged! These are all valid; no one wants to make mistakes, be misunderstood, or be “punished” for asking. I can’t say that I have a clear solution to this one, but this is what I’m aiming for: mutual respect, self-validation, and transparency. 

We are likely more comfortable openly asking questions among friends. However, even though friends are a more flexible or forgiving audience, I still want to practice these three qualities in all of my interactions. Personally, I like to gain insight and information equally from what I read/watch and from people to whom I speak. I’m able to apply what I’m learning from one to form a deeper understanding when engaging with the other. A good balance! 

When I show respect, I expect it to be mutual. Respect to me is about considering the viewpoint of the other person and being in-tune to their boundaries. If I have an idea of what’s going on with them, I can hold a conversation accordingly. This leaks into self-validation. The more successful it is and the more satisfied I am with their feedback, the more rewarded I’ll feel from what I’m putting out there. If I build some confidence in my conversations, I’m equipped to speak fluently and recover easier from mistakes. The confidence you build isn’t there to demolish your filter, but instead to feel more authentic in situations. This is where transparency shines. Rather than talking your way around something or holding too much unsaid inside you, try saying “I don’t know,” “I’d like to learn/understand more about…” etc. I try to keep away from “I hope you won’t take offense but…” because it’s hardly a warning. It sounds like I’m acknowledging that it could offend you but choose to disregard it anyway and that if you are offended it’s not really my fault, I’m passing responsibility to you. Right now, I’m figuring out how I can be more transparent. I have a suspicion that other people are a bit more understanding than we give them credit for, especially when we acknowledge our own shortcomings and approach them with little judgement. 

What can be learned from asking questions? I really like when people ask questions about life or about me. I try to welcome them with “I’m glad you asked…” or “good thought.” If I don’t like the question or prefer not to disclose the answer, I’m trying to be better about saying “let’s save that for another time” or “I’d rather not talk about this now.” I’m hoping to see more tolerance and encouragement of questions. As I lean into discomfort around how I am perceived, I am willing to discover the deeper knowledge and insight from expressing my curiosity. 

After all, explorers asked what was beyond the believed “edge of the world” and discovered more to life. 

The “end of the world” Finisterre, Spain

Go ask! And if you like this page, please share it.

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