Listen Up!: Crafting Good Questions and Responses

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As this series on listening comes to a close (see part 1 and part 2), we should consider a few things in terms of the transition from listener to speaker. When the time comes for the roles to shift, our responses to the messages of others will most often be one of the following: asking questions, agreeing, disagreeing, or qualifying. It is the first and last items on that list that we will examine here.

Asking Questions

When we ask questions, we are not only showing that we are listening, but we are also helping the speaker to communicate effectively with us. The ability to ask good questions also helps us to learn and can even have social rewards.

Questions can come in many forms. Some are basic, others are quite demanding of both the questioner and the questioned. As we consider how to ask thoughtful, productive questions, Bloom's Taxonomy will be a helpful framework with which to view things. It establishes six levels of thinking, starting with the most basic and building up to what is known as u201Chigher order thinking.u201D The levels, starting with the base, are as follows:

  • Knowledge (building awareness of a topic)
  • Comprehension (understanding a topic)
  • Application (knowledge and comprehension put to practical use)
  • Analysis (how the topic u201Cworksu201D and/or affects other topics)
  • Synthesis (combining knowledge, comprehension, application, and analysis of multiple topics together)
  • Evaluation (judging the value of a topic)

Higher order questions such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are not only more difficult to develop, but also more difficult to answer. Familiarity with these levels allows us to identify where any particular question lands within the scale of complexity. Don't feel compelled to operate solely out of the higher level questions. There is nothing wrong with basic questions; they form the backbone of critical thinking and daily life. As is true of most things, a healthy balance is the key.

On that note, don't feel the need to ask questions about everything, either. We could think of it like we think about food: we need to eat, but we do not need to eat all the time. We choose when to eat and when to refrain. The same thing applies to questions. Use your discretion. When is it a genuine question and when are you just using a question as some sort of filler (or as a way to make yourself seem smart)?

Question Templates

When teaching my students the finer points of discourse, I provide them with a series of templates that they can use (or modify) as they continually work to improve their style and voice in writing. The templates act sort of like training wheels on a bicycle: once you understand how it's done, you don't need them anymore, but while you're learning it's nice to have them there.

The same principle can apply for us here as we learn to ask better questions. The templates below give us a clear framework for how to develop questions with a variety of goals, ranging from simple clarification to asking questions about questions. Reading over the templates a time or two can prod your mind into thinking of good questions to ponder when someone is speaking, keeping you more engaged as you listen, and provide fodder for questions to pose aloud when appropriate. You'll notice that these question templates apply much of what we just discussed about Bloom's Taxonomy in a practical way.

I should note that I cannot take credit for developing the following templates, nor do I have the foggiest idea as to who first developed this particular set; I assume it was something I wrote down or photocopied during graduate school, but the original author has been lost to time.

Questions of Clarification

These are u201Cbasicu201D questions that help us comprehend meaning

  • What does he/she mean by _____?
  • What is the main point of _____?
  • How does _____ relate to _____?
  • Does he/she mean _____ or _____?
  • Could you give me an example of _____?
  • Would _____ be an example of _____?
  • Why does he/she say that?

Questions that Examine Reasons and Evidence

These are more complex questions that target why certain things are said or done.

  • How do you know _____?
  • Why do you think _____ is true?
  • Is there any evidence for _____?
  • Is there any evidence that _____?
  • What difference does _____ make?
  • What are his/her reasons for saying _____?
  • Are the reasons for _____ adequate?
  • What led him/her to believe _____?
  • How does _____ apply to _____?
  • Is there a reason to doubt _____?
  • Who could confirm that _____ is true?
  • Can someone else give evidence to support the view that _____?

Questions that Examine Assumptions

These are more complex questions that target what is being implied (things not being said directly).

  • What is he/she assuming?
  • All of his/her reasoning depends on the idea that _____. Why is his/her reasoning based on _____ instead of _____?
  • He/she seems to assume that _____. What is the reasoning for that assumption?
  • Why would someone make that assumption?

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