Asking Good Questions

Recently I was directed to an interesting article on the Huffington Post: 25 Ways to Ask Your Kids ‘So How was School Today?’ Without Asking Them ‘So How was School Today?’

The writer points to the daily struggle parents have with their kids: desperately searching for tidbits of information about your child’s life, only to get one-word answers (if you’re lucky!). In the article some of the questions are downright hilarious and I imagine the questions would get good responses (or at least a smile) from your child if you asked them.

If you look at the questions, one thing they have in common is that they are open-ended questions, which means they require an open response. For example, “Tell me something that made you laugh today” vs “Did you laugh today?” The answer to the second question is yes or no. The answer to the first question could be anything.

But at the same time the questions are not too broad in scope – they are actually quite focused. “Tell me something good that happened today” is narrower in scope than the tried-and-tested “How was school today?”. It’s easier to sift through the mind to find a good thing that happened, than to try and filter 6-7 hours of life’s content into a single response. Adults are much better at that kind of mental gymnastics than kids are, but even we struggle with this from time to time.

As a psychologist, my job involves asking good questions. Something you learn pretty quickly is the power a question can have. A question directs a listener’s mind down a particular pathway. You have to be careful that, when you ask a question, you’re inviting a thoughtful and considered response – not just fishing for confirmation of what you are already thinking. Consider the following… Suppose you were speaking to your child (or partner, friend, coworker – it doesn’t matter who really) and you found out they had a rather bad day and were pretty down about it. Naturally our first port of call in these situations is to gather more information, to find a problem in the hopes of finding a solution. We might ask “tell me more about what made it a bad day?”.

Probing for more information is always good for problem solving, and it’s often the natural response. The problem with this approach is that the question seems to covertly confirm that the day was bad or that things went wrong. The problem present can start to take centre stage in the conversation.

If you’d like to try something different, you could start a conversation by asking a different question. “How did you get through the day?” Here the focus is on solutions, coping and resilience, rather than problems and difficulties. This question shifts the listener’s thinking in a new direction. It doesn’t necessarily ignore the fact that the day was bad, but it doesn’t make the problem the central focus.

Some other example questions to think about:

“Who/what got you through that difficult time?”

“How did you cope with that?”

“What’s something that went well (or better) today?”

I encourage you to try asking some of these questions with the people around you, be it your kids after school, your partner after work or your friends. See if it starts a different conversation.

Adam is a Clinical Psychologist at the Resilience Centre.

You can see his bio here