Good conversation assumes attentive, empathetic listening. We learn to only speak when we have heard the other. We simply cannot overstate this: good listening is foundational to good conversation. Indeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would go so far as to say that to love the other is to offer hospitality to the other and hospitality is first and foremost that we listen to the other.
And yet, it may well be that we do not begin here, but rather recognize that the first prerequisite to good conversation is actually the question – that is, the enquiry into the perspective, or emotion or story of the other. If we want to hear the other, listen to their perspective, their story, their wisdom, then we need to signal an interest, a curiosity, an openness to the other . . . that is, that we invite the other to speak by proffering a question – more specifically the right question, the question that opens up our exchange. Perhaps one of the most important features of good conversation is precisely this: knowing how to phrase the question that opens up the dialogue.
This principle applies to friendship and marriage, to our relationship with parents and with our children and grandchildren, to the neighbour over the back fence, and the chat in the foyer after morning worship. But here, I am giving particular attention to the quality of the questions we ask in the workplace. We raise questions with colleagues, with those who report to us and with those to whom we have accountability . . . we pose a question as way to foster our capacity to work fruitfully together. And my point is that the quality of the conversation depends on the quality of the question – everything from the specifics of the question to the tone with which the question is raised to the sincerity of the enquiry.
In the workplace, questions can open up conversation along three distinct lines:
First, the question: what matters here and what matters to you? Nothing quite signals as powerfully as some variation of this question that you respect what the other will say – or offer. One example of a poorly asked question is one which puts the other person on the defensive. Sure, when the police officer pulls you over and asks: “Sir, did you know you were speeding though that construction zone”, you without doubt feel some variation of defensiveness and guilt and shame. But in fact, the officer has little if any interest in a conversation. Few things foster our capacity for good conversation as questions that help us get to the heart of the matter: what matters, what is important and why.
Second, the question that seeks wisdom, understanding and perspective. Few things are so irritating as having someone ask a question when they already know the answer or assume they know the answer – including in class, when the professor is asking the question only to find out if anyone read the essay. Rather, here I am speaking about the question that genuinely seeks perspective, another view, another way of seeing this problem or situation and a potential way forward. How do you see this situation? In your opinion, how might we approach this problem or opportunity?
And then, thirdly, good questions also at some point come around to what is happening to us emotionally. Are you angry about this? Do you feel overwhelmed by this situation? Is there something in this that is troubling you? What, in what we are wrestling with, is making you anxious or worried or afraid? Or, of course, what is bringing you joy and a sense of a job well done? What is bringing you pleasure?