The art of asking questions

This week’s post is by Julie Rudner, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne and is now lecturing at Latrobe University

Having submitted my PhD, and having time to reflect on the process, I have become curious about the art of asking questions. I think this is a vital ‘research skill’, yet it seems that many people don’t bother to develop the capacity to ask the right questions at the right times.

When I was a PhD student it is my opinion that my supervisors did not ask enough questions about my knowledge, skills and understandings, and were therefore less able to help direct my energies.

But perhaps I had unrealistic expectations? Maybe this disinterest in questioning me stemmed from the assumption that that I, as an ‘independent’ PhD student, should define for myself the nebulous area of what I needed to learn to succeed. Or it could have been that my supervisors just assumed competence on my part because of my background.

Taking a less generous view, my supervisors may not have taken the time to reflect on the issues I was facing. Now I am now a supervisor myself I believe this is an important area for students and supervisors to take the time to explore.

You can help this process along by asking plenty of questions; this can help the supervisor draw conclusions for themselves about what you know – and what you need to learn.

But some students may be reluctant to ask this many questions. For fear of appearing stupid, some might save their questions at spend too much energy appearing more confident than maybe they feel. In my opinion this helps no one.

This leads me to my second reason for being interested in the art of asking questions: the problem of knowledge, or rather the lack of it. I have a strong desire to remain a curious researcher, rather than a researcher who seeks to continuously support my existing beliefs. There will always be things I do not know and being comfortable enough to admit this will be a constant challenge.

In my observation, some experts we come across during our study and professional lives do not want to face up to this lack of knowledge and therefore do not ask enough questions. The most dangerous type of non questioner is the person who possess such confidence (sometimes to the point of arrogance) in their knowledge that they no longer seem to need to ask questions.

You have met this type of person no doubt. At every conference one of them will ask a ‘question’ of a presenter that is not really a question at all, but an excuse to hear themselves speaking and put forward their own point of view.

In contrast, I have also come across many researchers who are very humble in their knowledge; they ask questions that seem so basic, yet demonstrate a deep and unassuming curiosity.  They are often able to elicit new knowledge through this questioning which provides a depth of understanding or nuanced meaning that was previously un-articulated.

Having presented my wonderings and the background to my thoughts, I would like to pose a few questions of my own:

How do we work to ‘suspend’ our current knowledge and assumptions to create an unknowing state within ourselves, so we have the courage to ask questions that seem trivial, moot, or stupid?

For PhD students, who often do not know what questions to ask to further them along their journey, what do you need from supervisors to help you gain awareness of that unchartered territory?

6 thoughts on “The art of asking questions

  1. I like the idea of ‘suspending’ our assumptions. I guess this can only come about through processes of deep reflection, and that requires periodically stepping back and dislocating oneself from the intensive nature of enquiry and ‘focusing-in’ that is typical of doctoral study.

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