Not all Questions Are Created Equal


Not long ago, I had a very interesting conversation with someone I’ll call “John.”  The two of us talked about many subjects during our meandering dialogue.  At one point, to my complete surprise, John said, “I don’t need to question things.  Why would I want to do that?  My head already feels completely full of all kinds of ideas and knowledge.”

I was very much surprised by what John had said.  I also knew, based upon this single exchange, that he and I were very different kinds of people.

Unlike John, I’ve always been inquisitive.  I don’t accept things at face value and I have this instinctive need to dig deeper.  Though, like him, my head sometimes feels full, I find that I’m still hungry and always up for a bit of intellectual nibbling.

I frequently feel intellectually inadequate and humbled by the great mysteries of existence.  The world (and everything in it) is so big and fascinating and multifaceted and seemingly unknowable.  Those who think of themselves as questioners can never feel like they know or understand enough.

Because I’m an educator, I also try to help others see the value of asking questions.  By the way, there are all kinds of queries and not all of them are created equal.

For example, there are questions that begin with the word “how.”  Life forces us to ask these because we live in a world that prizes getting things done.  “How” questions are often about process, about the steps involved in accomplishing some task, making them very goal-oriented and practical but not very philosophical.  For instance, one might ask, “How are enchiladas made?”  This question is not about finding out why some of us become foodies or others don’t.  This query, when asked and answered, simply helps us prepare a wonderful Tex-Mex dish.

Then there are questions that start with the word “what.”  Like many “how” questions, these are often “closed.”  For example, if you ask, “What is the capital of Latvia?” there is only one possible answer and Riga would be it.  It is not possible to answer Caracas to the question without being utterly wrong.  I called these “closed” questions because once the answer is given, the interrogative has been completed.  “What” questions of this type lead nowhere beyond a correct (or incorrect) response.

Many questions that begin with the word “why” are very important because they can serve to “open” the mind.  “Why” questions are about causes and often provoke profound thought and  analysis.  For example, “Why have I chosen to be an educator?” might lead to the answer “Because I have always loved learning.”  Such an answer might prompt, “But why is learning so important to me?” which would lead to another answer that could then be examined with a “why” question.  As you can see, these kinds of queries force the questioner to burrow down and help uncover important truths about ourselves, the world, and other people.  They provide the questioner with a tool that can lead to new lines of inquiry.

18 thoughts on “Not all Questions Are Created Equal

  1. I love this post and ways in which we can ask “open” vs “closed” questions. You also capture that sense that some people are innately curious about things, including those things that are often difficult to answer. Others aren’t. A book I’m reading on the subject of writing, described reports as things that render information; while stories render experience. I liked that. I certainly have a different experience between hearing someone tell me about their trip to Europe by listing the places they went, versus telling me how they experienced those places. One feels like a report; the other, like a story.

    Stories invite more of the questioning you noted. Certainly “What” and “How” can be open-ended (“What did you enjoy about Florence?”, “How did you feel about missing the plane?”), but “Why” leads with openness. It doesn’t have to work as hard.

    My daughter is great at listening and asking questions. I commented to her about that quality. Her response? “I already know what I think; I want to learn more what others think.” I loved it.

    I enjoyed reading this. It really resonated. Glad I found you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. And I’m glad I found you. By the way, you write extremely well. I say this as someone who has made a living judging writers and being able to recognize talent when I see it. If you don’t mind my asking, what is your writing background? I also write for Pointless Overthinking and you’ve commented on some of my posts there. Have we already discussed the fact that that site is auditioning writers in an attempt to find new talent? If not, I’d like to talk with you about writing a guest post. It will be easier for us to connect via email. Please email me at Thanks for your wonderfully insightful comments and for the compliment as well.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I just emailed you.

        Thanks for the compliment. I was a writing major eons ago but only applied it professionally, to write business reports. Blogging is new. I’m reading a lot of writing books and trying to self-edit my way to writing tighter pieces. I haven’t felt brave enough to join a writing group where I’d receive constructive feedback; I feared it would derail all of my writing. But, I’m getting closer to thinking I can handle it :-).

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Not all “what” comments are closed end. Before the ruckus, my husband and I had a wonderful conversation that began with him asking me “What is your definition of racism?” We went back and forth on things for a while, causation, expression, ways to change things – and we decided that there wasn’t anything we felt was overwhelmingly different in our respective definitions. That doesn’t mean we are closed off to other people’s views, and that their input won’t change our ways of looking at things.
    Curiosity is probably the greatest gift we have. We live in an age when there is SO much information, and it takes a curious mind to sift through the various sources, to find a “truth”. Even then, it’s likely to be only part of a story, so you follow it down that rabbit hole, and so on…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. As someone who studied rhetoric in graduate school, I’ve long been interesting in the art and science of asking questions and building arguments. (And I’ve taught these things in universities for a long time.) Your comments always suggest that you are very thoughtful and quite philosophical. You aren’t an educator, are you? Yes, all curious people should see curiosity as a blessing. It’s the engine that drives my intellect and creativity. As always, I really appreciate your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. No, I’m not an educator. My love of the curious is more expressed within the Medical Laboratory, which has it’s own rhetoric, although it’s more commonly referred to as “troubleshooting”. If *this* patient has an abnormal value, why is that so? Is there an issue with QA? A reagent expired? Some issue with the quality of the specimen? What makes this happen? What other factors can be evaluated? It is only after answering those questions that we can reliably report an issue. It will be good to return to my “home”.
      You comments, and compliments, are deeply appreciated. One of the greatest blessings of WP is being able to have these discussions, and consider what makes an issue of note, without there being heated debate.
      Rhetoric sometimes confuses me, which is the “straw man”, the ethos or pathos – so I have to sit and process. There have been too many times that I’ve fallen for a rhetorical manipulation that has been unhealthy for me. Being able to take the time to tease out what is important, what the message is, how it actually applies – that’s a gift.
      I really appreciate your responses. It’s lovely to have “conversations”.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, lawofattractionreallywork! It seems as if we are kindred spirits! I’ve been super busy recently so I apologize for the delay in responding. Like you, I’m glad we’ve met and I’m really interested in looking at your writing. Why not post a link here so others can check you out as well?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You bring up two splendid questions: why do we ask questions, and how to leverage questions. I’m curious, what part(s) of himself do you think John is giving up by not questioning anymore? And what happened to next, in your conversation with John, after you that out?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am convinced that there are personality types associated with asking open-ended questions, esp about whatever is currently generally accepted.

    Some people get a little zing of excitement about taking that step into the unknown. Other people find that kind of mental effort hard and unrewarding, preferring to focus on the practical issue of the moment. I honestly don’t know how much is nature or nurture.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Troy, another great post. I spend most of my time enquiring into ‘stuff’, I’m totally blown away by the universe, it’s uniqueness, wonder! The idea that the brain could get full up like a hard drive makes me smile, and how some people can absorb a terabyte and others seem to be content with their USB drive. Each to his own, all equally relevant and valued. It’s extremely interesting how a conversation can be manipulated simply by being a skilled communicator. I often smile when watching politicians being interviewed on TV, and my husband gets really aggravated when they don’t answer the closed or leading question. In terms of learning, part of my philosophy is to discover something new every day, I need a constant supply of brain food! The ‘energy’ it generates spills out of my pen or keyboard….. it’s very fulfilling!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Being inquisitive can open the door to a world of opportunities. The genesys to pretty much every invention and a discovery in the world was always a question, the curiosity to know more, understand more and find out what the unseen holds for us.


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