Asking Meaningful Questions
Jinnie Rhee, English Columnist
We are paying an absurd amount of college tuition for not merely for a degree, but for those 4AM talks on the dorm floors, relationships that last beyond these four years, and the development of deeper, more nuanced perspectives.
Poignant discussions have been the most powerful way for me to develop myself and deeper relationships: they break through the surface level conversations and connections that I had often made before. . Many conversations are often surface level, and understandably so. Lunch breaks at Asian Ghetto and quick conversations when one runs into a friend on Dwight and Telegraph typically begin with “How are you?” and jokes about how stressed one is about upcoming midterms are exchanged. These interactions are refreshing and college would definitely seem grey without them. However, I’ve found that by simply asking more personal questions, I could learn more about those around me - even during quick lunches or over a cup of coffee. Some may disagree but given my interactions thus far, I truly do believe people want to be heard and share their stories. Questions I frequently ask include:
· What is your family like?
· What makes you really emotional?
· What has been the most difficult thing you’ve experienced this semester?
· Do you consider yourself a happy person?
· Do you think you would change anything if you could relive this past year?
· What do you think happens after death?
· What would you aspire to be if money and status did not exist?
· What problems in this world would you want to contribute to solving?
In the past, I reserved these types of questions for close friends, in fear of making people feel uncomfortable. In fact, there were moments where I purposely veered the conversation away from these topics, worrying that I would seem intrusive or be unable to handle such a delicate conversation. However, I have been able to get substantially closer to even acquaintances by hearing their answers to these questions.
Given how sensitive these questions can be, I have developed some understanding of the nuances of how and when these questions should be asked and discussed. Below are some of my thoughts on key points to keep in mind when navigating these types of discussions.
1. Develop an understanding of the individual before proceeding into a sensitive topic
There will be people who will take a while to open up and it is important to not push them. Like I mentioned earlier, having standard level discussion is just as enjoyable and valid and for certain people, deeper discussion is just not their cup of tea.
2. Continuously maintain a keen awareness of their emotional state
People inherently tell their stories and react to responses in unique ways. Some people color their experiences with a lot of emotions, while others may provide a rather objective series of events. You should be aware of how their story telling style would affect the delivery of their story. Additionally, if you respond with some of your opinion, they may be receptive in the beginning, but later may become frustrated.
3. Ensure feelings are validated
Often times, following a rather unpleasant story, people will respond with “Oh, you shouldn’t feel bad about that. It’s okay – don’t be sad!” These phrases may seem innocuous and said in hopes to make someone feel better. However, it is important to validate people’s feelings. If someone feels sad, acknowledging that that is valid and okay to feel is crucial.
4. Be respectful of how private they want their stories to be
Even if they do not explicitly state they want to keep their conversation with you private, you should think critically about the appropriate ways to respect their privacy.
5. Allow yourself to be open and vulnerable
A mutual openness to be vulnerable has been by far the most powerful way to develop relationships for me. Obviously, you need not be open with everyone who opens up to you, but just a thought.
6. Don’t approach a situation thinking you want to help “fix” somebody
It is best to approach such discussion with an idea to develop a deep relationship and understanding of others. Some people want advice while others may just crave a hug or someone to listen. Investing thought into how you can support them is much more effective as a friend than finding ways to “fix” them.
7. If there is a difference in opinion, explore those differences
There is much to learn from a difference in opinion. Take the time to understand why others may hold the values they do and use that as an opportunity to explore yourself as well.
As these are just some of my opinions, do take them with a grain, or bucket, of salt. Hope you have some great conversations during this holiday season!