Kelly Pyzik, Editor-in-Chief
Presidential candidates, national non-profit organization founders, award-winning novelists—every week, our campus community gets the chance to learn from incredibly successful, influential people, and most of the time, we get the chance to ask them questions. Asking good questions is one of the very best ways to learn—that’s why it is promised all over Grinnell admissions marketing materials that we as students will gain this skill. Yet, the silences during Q&A sessions are often painfully long, or the questions asked do not fully take advantage of the chance to pick such a vastly knowledgeable brain.
Asking questions is also one of the most important skills in journalism. Good reporting begins and ends with good quotes, and good quotes can only come from good questions. In the years since I took my first assignment as a little baby reporter covering the high school play, I have learned that good questions are composed from a few basic tenets.
A good question, first of all, is something about which you are genuinely curious. Sometimes, you are reminded of something you have spent a lot of time wondering about, and now you want to bring someone new into the conversation. Or, sometimes it is something you’ve never thought about before that was spurred by what someone just said. A good question shouldn’t take much time to come up with, because it’s sitting right there at the forefront of your mind, begging for consideration.
A really great question can have no direction at all. “I thought [this idea you brought up] was really interesting. Can you speak more about it, maybe with regard to [a more specific aspect]?” So much interesting information and many creative new thoughts come from a chance for guided rambling. It gives a person license to think out loud and share the most interesting bits that come to mind.
A good question allows itself to be a different question than the one the asker intended, because it is opening a conversation rather than creating a single question-to-answer exchange. It is all right to afterwards follow up and clarify what you originally intended to ask, but you may find that the way your question was first interpreted tells you more than the straightforward answer might have.
Clarification is terribly underrated. Good questions often look to hone in on complicated ideas and to get at nuance. Don’t be afraid to admit you didn’t understand something. If you’re confused, others likely are, too. It is perfectly human, and also flattering, to ask a speaker, “I was intrigued by [this idea you brought up] but I was also confused. Did you mean [interpretation A], or [interpretation B that is a similar yet uniquely other angle]?” Often, the answer will be, “Well, a little bit of both.” That’s when conversation can really start to get good. Black and white thinking is really efficiently functional—it is rewardingly tricky to just sit in the gray area and consider it. This kind of question is sometimes when you actually stump the speaker. That’s when you get a gold star.
Never bring your ego into the conversation. Don’t ask a question just to hear someone else, particularly an expert on the subject, affirm your idea or opinion. If you ask a sort of, “Do you think [this thing that I think]?” and immediately receive a yes, you have earned no gold star whatsoever. You have wasted everyone’s time by asking something with such an obvious answer. And everyone knows what you’re doing, don’t think they don’t. Now you look like a loser.
Further, don’t ask a question so specific to your own life that it requires an extensive background explanation that involves the personal “I.” This is, like, the biggest convocation party foul, ever. Save these questions for the even later opportunity to talk to the speaker one-on-one after everyone has cleaned up their pizza plates and left for classes.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to use simple words. And don’t be afraid to use a harmless word wrong. A good question leaves room in the air, but too many sociology buzzwords pollute the conversation so immediately with distinct connotation that it narrows beyond the possibility to produce exciting new thoughts.
More than anything else, be humble, be curious and be open. Even in day-to-day life, asking a good question, rather than an easy question, can spark the kind of conversation that you’re still thinking about hours later, that more securely bonds a friendship, that makes someone else feel understood and valued. Those conversations can only begin when you listen, really consider what you’re hearing and invest the careful thought necessary to genuinely want to know more.
—Kelly Pyzik is the S&B’s Editor-in-Chief