Questions are Keys that Unlock Doors to Other People

Read this reflective narrative about how to be a better conversationalist by asking questions.

Renée just began a graduate program in journalism and was startled at the impact of practicing a simple, fundamental skill: asking questions. From approaching someone on the street to inviting feedback from family, here’s what she’s noticed about the art of starting new conversations.

This past fall, in the middle of a pandemic, I started a graduate program in journalism. Even if you’re not a close follower of the news, you may have picked up on the fact that journalism is not a particularly lucrative profession at the moment. And you may have gathered that the past four years have only heightened divisions over standards of journalistic objectivity and fairness in the “mainstream media.”

What is journalism good for? It’s a question I ask myself fairly frequently.

A journalism degree is a professional degree, but it’s not a necessary gatekeeper to the profession — like law or medicine. Basically, it’s unnecessary. Journalism is something anyone with a pen and paper can do. And that’s kind of the point. Reporting is a form of democratic storytelling — at its most fundamental, it’s the idea that anyone can see something, get two sources — “both sides of the story” — and then publish their findings. It’s a form of storytelling and record-keeping in which the community tells its own story.

Over the past year, my studies have felt less like education and more like formation — how to develop a journalist’s habits of being. And those habits, I’ve found, are primarily cultivating an openness toward who and what is around you. One of its most basic — and effective — exercises is the interview.

The first time I attempted to interview someone on the street, I nearly chickened out.

It was last June, as I was breaking in my reporter’s sea legs by interning at a local paper. My first assignment: covering a protest in Times Square.

Surrounded by a crowd of people for the first time since February, I just couldn’t bring myself to approach a stranger. The idea of going up and talking to someone violated all the habits of social distancing I’d been practicing. And general New York City street etiquette strongly discourages it.

Plus, I have this deeply rooted fear of rejection. What if I ask someone if I can talk to them and they say no? Being told no feels devastating, even in a relationship as transitory as an interview. So yeah, I was scared.

As I was about to retreat, my friend Kevin nudged me toward a line of protestors. Armed with a pen and notepad, I made my way to a woman on the outskirts. I don’t even remember if I introduced myself.

Walking away after finishing the world’s shortest interview, I felt a surge of adrenaline. It seemed like magic that I could ask someone for their name, permission to ask a few questions, and they would just give away a story to me.

Interviewing is vulnerable — and often means getting rebuffed. People tell you no a lot. But one gift interviewing has given me is the practice of asking questions. Asking more questions has borne fruit not only in my reporting, but also in my relationships.

I’ve not always been good at asking questions. I like providing answers more than asking for them. But relationships are fueled by asking questions — asking them together and asking them of each other. The more questions asked, the more relationship to discover.

Asking questions is hard. It’s a practice of bravery. The answer to a question may be something you don’t want to hear, something that challenges the narrative you had. It may implicate you. It may mean you now have fewer answers and a whole new set of questions to ask.

Ask a friend, Have I hurt you? Pause to greet the panhandler on the street: How are you? Or say to a family member, Why do you think that? — and you may hear things you aren’t ready for. Asking questions draws me out of my own certainty into uncertainty.

And being uncertain doesn’t feel good. It often makes me feel weak. Uncertainty reveals me as someone who needs other people and doesn’t have all the answers contained neatly within myself. I can’t simply rely on my own experience to tell the story. Practicing journalism over this year has reminded me over and over again that I need others to tell my own story — or any story.

There’s a lot of things journalism can’t do — it can’t tell you what existence is. It can’t describe the goal of a human life. It can’t create a shared set of values or beliefs. As a craft, it has its limitations. But I think journalism, like philosophy, is a mode of encountering reality and seeking wisdom.

To be wise means to see the world for what it is — what it truly is, not what I wish it to be, or even what I see it as. To see the world for what it is means discovering it as made of many things beyond my own vision and hidden from my sight. The more we acknowledge our own blindness, the closer we are to seeing the whole — so long as my blindness prompts me to ask my neighbor what she sees.

Asking questions is an invitation to my neighbor — my partner, my roommate, my sister — to teach me what the story is. Questions invite us to build our stories with people. They are a reminder to include the narratives of others in our own narrative.

Asking questions gives flesh to my belief that I do not have a monopoly on truth. Questions open my eyes to a greater vision of truth, one built on continually opening myself up to relationship — even if it’s vulnerable, even if I’m scared. A question is the first step of a journey of opening myself to more sides of the story — to expand my own story to include the many tales of others. To be a human is to be made up of many stories.

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