Ten years since he last asked a question? Who can do that? Who can go a decade without asking a question? The response is Clarence Thomas. when I saw that statistic, it made me ask myself why so many of my blogs begin with a rhetorical question? Whether I'm writing a blog, teaching a class, or connecting with friends, questions lead me to the unknown land of others' reactions. My favorite verses in the Torah are the rhetorical questions beginning with the serpent ("Did God really say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden'?" Genesis 3:1).God asks a rhetorical question just nine verses later when Adam and Eve try hiding from God, "Where are You?" (Gen. 3:9) followed by two more questions.SInce God is omniscient, by definition God must know the answer to that question.
Not all questions are created equal.Rhetorical questions grab attention or persuade.They are questions posed in order to obtain a response or create a connection.Some are better than others. Two examples from my childhood of poorly conceived questions spring to mind.
When I returned from elementary school, I heard the question, "how was your day?" Default response, "fine." "Fine" could be stated aggressively, softly, or in a monotone. My interrogator (usually Mom or Dad) had to deduce my emotional state from my tone rather than the response. When I found myself asking my children the same question, I winced.I know from experience it's hard to offer a concise summary of the day when you're tired, hungry, and drained from social interactions. It's a tough reflex to control.
In eighth grade health class, we studied the systems of the body. Each unit test had the same question from Mrs. Ficocello:"Tell all you know about the reproductive (or circulatory or endocrine, etc.) system." We all detested that question and we all boldly threatened to write the response, "nothing" after the question.But we soldiered on trying to remember all the facts reported to us so we could echo them back to our teacher.
When I consider how I learned to pose better questions, two names come to mind:Bloom and Adler. Learning Bloom's taxonomy when I studied pedagogical methods taught me to consider the student's level of development as well as how to frame a question so that the response met my teaching goal. Developing a line of inquiry to allow students to draw conclusions is a well-tested methodology beginning with Socrates. Writing tests and writing discussion questions hone that ability. After forty years, questioning in a classroom environment is natural for me.
Outside the classroom, my best teacher has been my sister Leslie Adler. Interviewing Vera and Alla for Jewish Luck was easy when we asked them questions that evoked warm memories.Much more difficult was extracting their painful memories. As Leslie taught me, it was important to create a good question like—what did your body feel when you were going through that difficult time?What did you do to get yourself through it? It was even more important to listen and be silent during the response.I had to learn to listen to what was missing in a response in order to probe for more depth. Leslie pushed me across self- imposed boundaries to respectfully probe deeper and deeper.
Whenever I'm with people who are natural conversationalists, I'm impressed by the way they formulate their questions and the way they listen attentively. Many of our family members think of my older son as "quiet," but he is one of the best questioners I know.He's an attorney who creates interrogatories professionally for the courtroom or for a deposition. It's not only his lawyerly acumen that I admire, but the gentle and humorous way he greets his children at the end of the day.Not once have I heard him ask the dreaded, "how was your day?"Instead, he poses a very specific question about an activity he knows they had that day or a question about someone in their class.And then he listens thoughtfully to their responses.What a joy for me to watch my son deepen his relationship with his children through conversation and loving attention.
What are your thoughts (not a rhetorical question)?