Monday, October 26, 2009

When Questions Go Bad

You've heard the saying. "There are no dumb questions. Only those that aren't asked." This motto is used as an encouragement for people to engage in a process of understanding. People need to feel that their questions are welcomed and encouraged. They shouldn't feel like they need to self-edit themselves in order not to appear dumb. "Just go ahead and ask the question. Otherwise you only have yourself to blame if you leave without the knowledge you need."

Sometimes this motto is used outside the normal circumstances of a teacher-student relationship. And it may still apply. But there is an inherent flaw, if this motto is used as a legitimate argument that there are no bad questions. Is that really true?

The reason I bring this up is that my youngest daughter asks me some very good questions sometimes. Then there are times when she asks me bad questions. I thought about this. Am I simply judging those questions bad because I don't like them, or am I picking up a general principle? After considering all sorts of questions by all sorts of people, and noticing that Jesus answered bad questions differently, I conclude that there is a general principle here. Bad questions do exist.

He's what I've discovered. Bad questions are not bad simply because they are not formed well. When that happens, questions may be communicated badly, but that doesn't make them bad. What makes questions bad is mostly the intent.

But first, let's define the purpose of questions. Previously I said the motto, "There are no dumb questions," is something that is mentioned to encourage questioning. And the reason this is important is that understanding will be enhanced when questions are asked and answered, which encourages dialog. Therefore the purpose of questions is to encourage dialog and increase understanding. Ultimately it helps to bring clarity whether there are good answers or not.

Bad questions are designed not to do this. In fact, they are formed to do just the opposite. They are designed to bring confusion and chaos. How can you tell? Well, it's all in the intent.

Here's some samples of what makes questions bad:
  1. Questions where the intent is to not comprehend the answer. People sometimes ask questions to never arrive at any understanding, because they don't want to for whatever reason.

  2. Questions which are designed to simply trap the one being asked. Sometimes people want to use trickery to get their own way. It has nothing to do with clarity, just a "gotcha" is sufficient.

  3. Questions people use to shape their public image. They don't ask to increase knowledge or to understand. They desire to appear in a certain way, and that's what motivates them.

  4. Last, questions that are only for entertainment. The questioner likes to hear herself, or wants to make people say something silly. There is no value in these questions other than amusement.

Although bad questions exist, not all questions that appear bad are really bad. Sometimes we feel trapped by a question because it is actually a good question. It may bring clarity to bad assumptions we hold. Sometimes a question is truly clever and adept at getting to the core of an issue. Sometimes questions seem silly, but if thought about, may have profound significance.

So, how can you tell? It's often revealed in how the questioner responds to your answer or when you return a question to them.

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