One of the most powerful books I ever read was “Teacher Effectiveness Training” by Dr. Thomas Gordon. He devotes many pages to showing how questions can be counterproductive when trying to understand a person. In general, if someone is upset, Gordon advises simply listening to whatever the upset person wants to say, without asking lots of pesky, penetrating or accusative questions. Gordon shows that it is easy to use questions as a form of bullying or lecturing.
But when I am thinking by myself and I want to understand something, asking myself a series of questions is often helpful. I have heard it said that the right question is far more valuable than the right answer, since a good and rich question often leads to a good answer or even several of them. Socrates, as described in the book “Since Socrates” by Henry Perkinson, was full of questions and used them to good effect for himself and others.
I am listening to Prof. Sean Carroll discuss “The Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time”. Since time is one of those subjects that we learn about early in life and care about each day, it seems like something close and ordinary. However, Einstein showed that time is a trickier subject than it seems in everyday life. Prof. Carroll walks the line between ordinary usage and scientific usage and often comments that a given question “might not be a good one to ask.” He means that while some questions lead to enlightening answers, other questions can confuse and misdirect our thoughts.
One of the most famous “unfair” questions is “When did you stop beating your wife?” This is supposed to be a trap to enable a lawyer to say something like “Aha! So you admit to mistreating her before last Christmas” or whatever time the person testifying mentions. Cardinal Richelieu, the nemesis of the three musketeers and the queen, is supposed to have said that if a man will but write three lines on paper, the good Cardinal could have him hanged for treason. With the right questions and the right doubts raised, the official was confident he could persuade the authorities the writer was a traitor.
Despite their shortcomings and limitations, I still respect questions as immensely valuable tools.
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