I have learned that a question is almost always the best approach: to begin something, to welcome someone, to unlock a stubborn problem, to enlist enduring support, to launch a difficult conversation, or to become a part of a community rather than standing apart.
In a world of declarations that define boundaries, a question is an invitation to cross boundaries. In a room full of strong opinions, a question is a disarming force that can open minds. When I’ve found the courage to ask a question — especially when every impulse in me wants to judge, accuse, dismiss, instruct, conclude, correct, or just disappear — I’ve been grateful for it. And yet, I’m still learning my own advice.
In the spectrum of possible questions, though, not all are created equal. Among the lower forms to avoid are:
- the ‘look how smart I am’ question, a common preening behavior at conferences, where the point is to boast a personal victory rather than build a conversation;
- the ‘look how dumb you are’ question, intended to be cruel, embarrassing, or belittling;
- the loaded question, piled high with narrow facts and fancy rhetoric to defend your current opinion.
The best questions (like the best leaders) are genuine, generous, and courageous. Genuine, in that they signal a true interest in learning from the response. Generous, in that they offer focused space for someone else to speak. Courageous, because bold questions make you vulnerable — to attention, dismissal, or the frightening insight that you don’t know everything.
Most of all, ask questions of yourself. When tempted to blame or belittle yourself, or something you’ve done, or something you can’t bring yourself to do, ask a genuine, generous, and courageous question instead. And invite yourself into a useful conversation.
We all deserve that kind of respect.
NOTE: I wrote this entry at the request of Barry Hessenius for his second annual “what I’ve learned” blog. The question he posed the lot of us was this: “What Have You Learned? — either in the profession of arts administration, or in life generally — advice you can pass on to others” (in 300 words or less). Many inspiring responses from other contributors can be found on Barry’s Blog.