By Candace Echols
Has the art of asking good questions gone the way of the landline?
In addition to my own writing for Storyboard, I also have the fascinating job with Style Blueprint, interviewing Southerners. The publication only allows for 1,200 words, so I consider it a personal challenge to formulate questions that will really tap into who a person is. Recently, I was assigned a person who has been heavily interviewed over the last couple of years and has appeared on a national network. I researched her in advance and allowed my own mind to wonder about certain tidbits that showed up in her work. Wondering takes you places. At the end of the interview, she complimented my question-asking.
“I’ve been interviewed a ton, but this is my favorite interview I’ve ever done. Your questions are so good!”
Her compliment made me wonder some more. Is it possible that asking questions at all—good or bad—is in danger of being out of vogue? It’s a wonder nowadays that we are able to have conversations at all. How do we know what others want or need to hear, if we don’t ask questions to guide the conversation? Without banks, a river just becomes a flood. Without questions, a dialogue quickly morphs into a soliloquy.
The romance of good conversation is not unlike what you see on the ballroom dance floor. A man in a dark suit, constantly working to frame the beauty in the glittering gown. All the while, she moves in tune with him, responding with each move. First him, then her. If that’s hard to follow, consider that good talk is also akin to the layering of a home that’s been lived in for a long time. That book from childhood sits on the fireplace from 1910, next to the flowers picked just this morning. A fresh question exposes a mind that thinks about things from past and present at the same time—an old soul, of sorts. It reveals a heart that is ready to learn and grow—youthful in every way.
The best conversations happen when one chooses a word or an idea from what another has mentioned and then braids her own thoughts into it. Maybe the hearer offers her own experience. Maybe she gives an opinion or references a book. Maybe she tells a joke about that very topic and everyone cackles so loudly that people at nearby tables are overtaken with jealousy. But then, there is that critical moment—less than half a second—when dead air hangs.
It’s here that a solid question shows its stuff.
It’s here that six people around a table hold the future in their hands. It’s in this moment that they choose either to establish lifelong friendships or to remain hearty acquaintances. People guide questions; questions guide relationships. A well-formed question percolates when a person has both a curious mind and a caring heart. If he is only curious but not caring, he may be a reporter or a private investigator or a snoop; therefore willing to do damage. If he is deeply caring but not at all curious, he will find himself able to empathize, but not strategize; he won’t be quite sure what to do.
If, as sometimes happens, he is neither curious nor caring, then he is to be pitied because a life of navel-gazing is all he will have to anticipate. Interesting people are interesting because they are interested in other people, places, and ideas. Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, is my hero when it comes to thinking through intentional gathering. She encourages the curating of concepts in advance and then boiling them down to one well-built question (introduced through a toast) to guide a group conversation. I am eager to introduce this to the friends and family who will be invited to our winter feasts.
What are human souls if they remain buried and hidden, unknown and silent? What if, sometimes, people just need a little help cracking open? Each of us, marred as we are, represent a small snapshot of the image of God. A timely question has the remarkable potential to plumb the depths of another man’s soul—and maybe even come away with something sacred.
And that will always be in vogue.
StoryBoard features “The Yellow Chair ChronEchols” by writer Candace Echols. Candace recently published her first book, the children’s book Josephine and the Quarantine. Candace is a Midtown resident, wife, and mother of five. She has written for StoryBoard’s Page One Writing Workshops, and writes in quiet moments from her yellow chair.