Just Ask Questions

Asking questions helps you better understand where your friend or family member is coming from, but more importantly it has the effect of letting them work through their thoughts and beliefs themselves. Often this lets them come to conclusions on their own, without you even having to tell them anything. (Inception!) This is ideal, because scholars of human learning tell us that we are much more likely to learn and to retain skills/information when we figure them out on our own.

Here are some good questions to ask:

  • What made you start believing that?
  • Why do you think that is?
  • Why do you say that?
  • Why do you like __________________?
  • What about ______ is scary to you?
  • Why do you think __________ makes you feel uncomfortable/angry/scared, etc.?
  • Can you give more more examples so I can understand better?
  • How do you know that that’s true?
  • Where do you think [problem] comes from?
  • What solutions would you suggest for this problem?
  • How would that work/Why do you think that would work?
  • What would an ideal world look like to you?
  • What’s the difference between [thing you think is wrong] and [similar thing you think is fine]?
  • Do you think [unfair thing] is fair? Why?

As they answer, avoid the temptation to simply counter their answers with your own. Instead, keep asking more questions to delve further into their beliefs. Try to steer them towards contradictions in their beliefs to see if they can resolve them. Remain nonjudgmental about the contradictions you may unearth - if they feel condescended to or attacked, they are less likely to learn. Simply allow those contradictions to sit out in the open where the person has to see and reckon with them for themselves. Nod, listen, and ask more questions - keep saying “Tell me more about that.” 

This article by Ijeoma Oluo is another useful how-to for a question-based conversation. Oluo explains how to lead someone (or yourself) through a series of questions to help them better understand how they came to their own beliefs.

Also remember - this is part of an ongoing process, don’t expect results right away! (see “Listen and Be Patient”).

Jennifer Hare