Gold Nugget 2: Asking the Right Questions

by teresalaynebennett

gold nugget symbolizing what we can learn from everyone

Learning From Everyone

gold nugget symbolizing what we can learn from everyone

Ask the Right Questions

Good news: there are only two tricks to mining gold nuggets from everyone you meet. Bad news: the first one is devilishly hard.

1. Stop talking about YOU.

Stop talking about what you think and where you’ve been and where you’re going. We can’t really learn much when we’re the one doing all the talking: all we’ll hear is stuff we already know. No, if you want to learn something new, get someone else to tell you about their life experiences and what they’ve learned from them.

Notice, I didn’t simply say “get others to talk.” As you know, getting people to yammer on mindlessly is not the problem: getting them to stop is. Most of us, for some bizarre reason, blather endlessly about the non-events of our lives, the ho-hum “and then I went to Starbucks and after that I went to the mall” stuff. That sort of talk is definitely not gold-nugget material.

2. Ask the right questions.

Ask questions that prompt the pivot-point stories of a person’s life. Good news: this one is easy. Simply use the same 5 Ws – who, what, when, where, why – that journalists use.

The two most promising of these 5 Ws are what and why. The most unpromising types of questions are yes-or-no questions. They’re deal-breakers that will force you to keep probing. Eventually you’ll end up with the what and why questions, so why not start there?

For instance, when you ask that stoop-shouldered, ancient codger next door who lived through World War II, “What was your most interesting experience during the war?” you’ll hear a story like none you’ve ever heard. Somewhere in it will be a little nugget – the mined gold of that man’s war experience. Or not. You may have to dig deeper and ask a why question, e.g., “Why was that so __________ for you?” And then your nugget shows its golden face.

Don’t be youthfully arrogant, as I was for so long. Mark it down. Key it into your journal. THINK on that gold nugget. World War II was heavy stuff. Anyone born after 1945 hasn’t experienced anything close to it and isn’t likely to. That life experience forged an entire generation (The Builder Generation) of tough men and women. They experienced Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the one that “aroused a sleeping giant” that we now know as our country. And anyone still alive who lived through that momentous epoch of our country’s history has had a lifetime to ponder that experience, draw from it, learn from it. If they’re willing to share that insight with you, pay attention. 

What about the 100-plus-year-old black woman you meet while you’re on vacation in Georgia, the one whose mother was born a slave? What stories does she remember from her mother’s life experiences? You’ll never know if you don’t tactfully ask open-ended questions. And when will you again get to hear stories only one telling removed from Civil War days? You won’t. Pay attention.

What about that mild-mannered guy who lives above you? He seems nice, quiet, considerate – but he sure keeps to himself. When asked the right questions by an interested neighbor (that would be you), what might he be willing to reveal? What if he fought in the jungles of Viet Nam? What if you politely showed enough sincere interest that he was willing to let down his reserve for a few moments every now and then? What do you do? You pay attention because he has something to tell you that you’d never learn otherwise.

Look around.

Your world is filled to the rim with people who have something to teach you and are all interesting in their own ways. Many of them have learned a great deal of life’s lessons by getting kicked in the teeth (like moi). A tiny few have had Lady Luck pay a visit in an astounding way. Many have just wandered through an average, middle-America life and learned a lot of lessons along their wandering way. When you think about the variety of experiences and lessons learned by people you know – or even meet for an hour or two as jet seatmates – it’s astonishing.

Get people to talk.
Ask the right questions.

Get them to tell you about those interesting parts of their lives and what they’ve learned from them. First, get beyond the banal, “Where are you headed?” “Oh, yes. I’ve been to Seattle. Cool place, isn’t it?” kind of conversations. They’re chewing gum for the mind – a whole lot of yammering, but not much learned – unless they’re springboards for some really meaty discussion. Next, use the creme of the 5 Ws – the what and why questions: “What’s your favorite place in Seattle? Really? Why is that?”

Using what and why as mining tools will show you the variety of life but more importantly, yield gold nuggets – lessons learned from experiences you’ll never have from people you might never see again. Your Seattle-bound seatmate? You won’t cross paths again, except in Baggage Claim. Grandma? She might live another ten years. Might not. Your new neighbors? They might live across the street from you another 15 years – or get transferred, yet again, next week.

Start asking gold-nugget,
5-W questions NOW.

Not asking the right questions means you’re loosing gold-nugget opportunities to learn some of life’s lessons. No two-by-fours between the eyes. No shin-splitting blows. Just interesting, painless, useful lessons. And have you noticed no silver spoons are required – just the cultivated skill of asking the right questions?

Already pretty proficient at asking 5-W questions? How about sharing some of your 5-W gold nuggets with the rest of us? Let us listen.

red box with white text of Ernest Hemingway's quote about listening carefully

LISTEN. Maybe you’re the next Hemingway.

© 2013 Teresa Layne Bennett