The Power of Questions

Anne Frank House is well-interpreted, an important story and museum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

A couple of years ago we were in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and went to the Anne Frank house. It’s a powerful interpretive experience. Anne’s words projected on the walls of the small townhouse’s upstairs apartment are sobering. There is no guide, but at the end of the experience, a video screen shows footage of current civil unrest and ethical issues happening around the world. Visitors are asked to vote yes or no on a specific question related to the video currently showing. Using an electronic voting pedestal that immediately tallies and displays the votes, you can see the results as a percentage of the group effort. More questions are immediately raised in your own mind. Did I react as others did? Was there a right answer? Why are these choices so troubling?

Socrates (469 B.C. – 399 B.C.) believed that questioning was the only defensible method of teaching. Centuries of experimentation in learning and communication theories have passed and his ideas endure. Why is that? What makes a question, especially a thought provoking one, so powerful?

College classes often are called lectures. As guides, we give a tour. Why aren’t we facilitating a conversation instead? Why not call a class or a tour a dialogue?

I have to think back at the number of times when I lectured without asking questions in a college class or spoke at a campfire program. I know I did this at times. But somewhere along the way I realized that asking questions kept people awake, if I waited for the answers. If I asked rhetorical questions, expecting no answer, it quickly became clear they could snooze with their eyes open and I would rattle out the answers. Real questions kept them engaged in the subject if I allowed them time to process the question and to answer.

Starting a conversation with open questions (those that have no right or wrong answers) helps people feel safe and can be a warm-up for more specific questions that might follow – recalling things they already know, making observations to get them to focus on what we want to discuss, or analyzing a situation to develop their ideas about it. Eventually we get to a capstone question, hopefully a deeply probing one that really gets people to think. What if Anne Frank had not kept a diary, a record of her thoughts during her period of hiding in a room behind the bookcase? How has this tragic story engaged people in thinking about the tragedy of oppression and bigotry?  A tour like the one at Anne Frank House can get someone to think more deeply about oppression and bigotry in today’s life – by asking questions, whether those questions are asked by a live guide or in a video.

Certainly, questions can be troubling. They can be provocative. They can sew a seed of doubt about something we have taken for granted. Social science research suggests that we only shift our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors after thinking deeply about something. Questions get that thought process started. Conversations bring people more deeply into any story, helping them to understand and perhaps to care about or for the subject. Simply telling them about the same subject may not work as well. How will you apply that premise where you live and work? It’s an interesting question.

Tim Merriman

 

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