asking questions

A thought on asking rabbis questions

Content note: This post is more Jewish-specific than usual. (As usual, anyone who wants to reblog one of my posts should go ahead and reblog it.)

animatedamerican

replied to your post

“Seders go better if you have substantial food for karpas”

Strictly speaking you shouldn’t eat anything between kiddush and motzi, and the karpas breaks that usual pattern; many still hold, though, that for that reason the karpas should not be anything substantial. If you or anyone else at the seder holds that way, eating something substantial shortly before candle lighting is a good alternative.

realsocialskills said:

I’m not concerned with that opinion, for reasons are beyond the scope of this blog. That said, I think there’s something it’s important for people in communities concerned with that kind of thing to know:

Strict opinions do not necessarily apply to everyone. This is true in every community, even communities generally regarded as extremely inflexible.

If you ask “Is it permitted to do x?” as a generic question, you will usually get the default theoretical answer based on sources. If you ask “given my particular circumstances, is it permitted for *me* to do x?”, you will usually get an answer that takes your circumstances into account. These answers can be completely different.

People who sound super-strict in public (even angrily so), often give very different answers in private when they know your circumstances. 

If the answer to a halakhic question you’re asking matters, it’s usually worth saying why. If you’re asking a rabbi, maharat, yoetzet, or other halakhic expert a question, they will give you a better answer if you give them more context.

So here, someone who asked “Can I eat substantial food for karpas” might get a completely different answer than “Every year I find that I am too exhausted from hunger to participate in the maggid. Can I eat substantial food for karpas?”. 

tl;dr If you’re in the kind of community where people ask rabbis halakhic questions, it’s often worth telling them what your situation is and why you’re asking the question. The answer to abstract questions is often very different than the answer to questions about a specific situation.

“How do you know?”

“How do you know?” is a really useful question.

People often assert things very confidently, without giving a reason. Sometimes it’s easy to respond to their confidence automatically, and believe them without thinking about it. Which can lead to a lot of mistakes.

The question “How do you know?” can be very helpful. Sometimes it’s something you can ask directly — some people are very receptive, and will think about their reasons and give you a good answer. Sometimes they know their reasons; sometimes they haven’t thought about it before and do think about it when you ask the question.

Some people don’t respond well to that kind of question, and asking isn’t always a good idea. But you can still ask yourself the question. Sometimes thinking to yourself “How do they know?” helps. Sometimes thinking to yourself “How do I know whether or not that’s true?” helps.

For instance:
Therapist: My client is engaging in a lot of attention-seeking behavior.
You: How do you know she’s doing it for attention?
Or you to yourself: How does he know she’s doing it for attention?
Or you to yourself: How do I know if he’s reporting her motivations accurately?

Or: 
Teacher: This shard of pottery shows a king walking a dog. We can learn from this that dogs were associated with high status.
You: How do you know that it’s a king in the picture?
Or you to yourself: How do we know whether crowns meant kings?
Or you to yourself: How do I know if the teacher is right about this being a picture of a king walking a dog?

tl;dr Sometimes it can be easy to believe someone because they sound confident. One way around this is to get into the habit of asking “How do you know” or asking yourself “How do they know?” or asking yourself “How do I know if they’re right?”

remembering to ask questions

Some phrases in academic argument are used to assert that an argument has been successfully been made. If someone’s really good at using them, it can make their arguments feel better than they actually are.

One countermeasure is to learn what those phrases are, and to use them as indications that it’s time to check to see if you agree with their argument.

A few examples of phrases that often work this way:

  • “It is clear that…"
  • “We have seen..“
  • “Now it is evident..”
  • “It has been demonstrated…"
  • “It follows from…"
  • “It goes without saying that…"

If you get into the habit of reading things like this as  questions, it becomes much easier to tell what you think the answer is.

eg:

  • Do you think it’s clear?
  • Have you seen the point being made? Do you agree with it?
  • Do you think it’s evident from the evidence the author brought?
  • Do you think it has been demonstrated?
  • Do you think it follows from that?
  • Do you think it goes without saying? Do you think it’s true at all? 

tl;dr Some rhetorical devices make arguments feel better than they are. Getting into the habit of seeing them as indications that it’s time to ask a question makes it easier to evaluate arguments on their merits.

Thoughts on asking better panel questions

At panel discussions, there is usually a chance for members of the audience to ask questions. If you want to get good answers to your question, it helps to ask the question a certain way. These are not absolute rules, but these general principles often help:

Ask one question:

  • If the panelists are interesting, you will probably have a pile of questions you want to ask them
  • It can be tempting to try to ask all the questions together in one long paragraph
  • That never works, because the panelists don’t actually have time to answer all ten of your complicated questions
  • And if your question gets overly long and complicated, they quit paying attention and just talk about what they want to talk about
  • If you want them to answer a question, you have to pick one.

Make sure your question is actually a question:

  • The point of asking questions is to get the panelists to share their perspective on something you care about
  • The question you ask should be possible to answer, and you should be interested in what the panelists think of it
  • Otherwise it’s not really a question
  • Sometimes people who think they’re asking a question are actually presenting a long monologue about their views on something
  • That really annoys everyone.
  • The people in the audience came to hear the panelists, not you. If you monologue instead of asking a question, it will annoy them.
  • (There’s almost always at least one person who does this.)
  • (There are some exceptions to this: if you’re sufficiently popular in that group that people are likely to be just as interested in what you say, *and* the panelists hold you in high regard and won’t mind, sometimes it’s ok. That’s rare.)

Questions to panelists should be specific, and easy for the panelists to understand. They should also be at least somewhat open-ended, so that the panelists will be able to give substantive and nuances answers. A few possible scripts for forming good questions (there are many others):

Asking how something works, or how something will happen, eg:

  • “How will the new version of your app support VoiceOver?“
  • “How do you decide what to put in the parameters for casting calls?”
  • “How do you respond when the alarm goes off in the spaceship?“

This can also be a short statement, then a question, eg:

  • “A lot of comedians tell offensive jokes. When you’re working on a routine, how do you figure when a joke you’re considering is crossing a line?”

Asking them to expand on something interesting they referenced by starting with “Can you say more about…”, eg:

  • “Can you say more about the time you quit a job at the Very Highly Regarded Charity for ethical reasons?“
  • “Can you say more about your methods for attracting butterflies without also attracting wasps?”

“What do you think about..?” or “Here’s a statement. What do you think about that?“

  • This can be good, but it can also be hard to make it specific.
  • Example of an overly vague question: “What do you think about pie?”
  • A better question: “What do you think of replacing cakes with pie on ceremonial occasions?“
  • Another example of a question that would be overly vague in most contexts: “What do you think about progress?”
  • A question that’s more likely to be answerable: “What do you think about the role of People in Our Field in making the world better?”
  • another example: “Some people say that if we wait long enough, things will get better on their own. What do you think about that?“
  • “What do you think about Other Person’s Theory? Does that seem true in your work?”

“Do you think that…"

  • This can be a good way to ask stuff
  • The problem is that it’s prone to cause a question to be overly closed
  • Eg: “Do you think that you will enjoy your next job?” is very unlikely to get a good answer
  • This might get a good answer: “Do you think that other women are still facing obstacles in your field?“
  • Offering alternatives can sometimes make the question seem more open, eg:
  • “Do you think that standardized testing is a good approach to improving special education outcomes, or do you favor a different approach?”

Asking about a rumor:

  • Make it clear which rumor you’re talking about, then ask about it (Asking “So, are the rumors true?” will not generally get an interesting answer).
  • “Is there any truth to that?” will often get a better answer than “Is that true?”
  • Example: “I heard that you’re working on a book of poetry about cats from a laser pointer’s perspective. Is there any truth to that?“

Questions that start simple and also ask for an explanation. There’s sometimes another way to phrase these too:

  • Adding “why or why not?”
  • eg: “Did you enjoy being a voice actor on the Simpsons? Why or why not?“
  • you could also ask that question this way: “What were some things you liked and disliked about being a voice actor on The Simpsons?”
  • another example: “Do you think that there is life on other planets? Why or why not?“

There are also questions that are challenges. These are harder to pull off. They still should be real questions, that it is actually possible to answer in a substantive way.

  • For instance “Isn’t it true that you’re an ableist and only care about yourself?” isn’t a good question because there’s no good way to answer it.
  • Asking that way makes you look like a jerk, even if you’re completely right in your assessment
  • It’s much more effective to challenge them on something specific, and to ask a question that it is possible to answer
  • (This can sometimes force them to consider the issue, or to reveal publicly that they’re getting it wrong.)
  • Example of a better question: “Why doesn’t the board of your Disability Organization About Disability have any openly disabled members?”
  • Or, you can push harder and say something like: “There are no openly disabled members on your board. What are you doing to address this problem?“
  • How far it’s useful to push depends a lot on context.
  • (The rule of only asking one clear question at a time is particularly important with challenges. If you ask a complicated or ambiguous challenge question, it makes it easy for them to evade it.)

If possible, keep your question short:

  • Most people don’t like to pay attention to long complicated questions
  • If your question is short and easy to understand quickly, you’re likely to get a better answer
  • Short questions are easier to understand
  • They’re also harder to evade
  • If your question is 1-3 sentences long, you will probably get a better answer than if it is substantially longer.

Think about your question before you start talking:

  • You will probably have to wait your turn to ask
  • While you’re waiting to be called on, it’s worth planning what you want to say and how you want to say it
  • If you wait and don’t figure out what you’re going to say until you start talking, it will probably be more verbose and less clear
  • If you can, it’s worth planning
  • (For some people, writing the question down first helps) 

None of these things are absolute rules, but all of them are potentially helpful. If you can’t communicate this way, you still have the right to ask questions. These are suggestions, not rules.

tl;dr If you’re at a panel discussion and want the panelists to give interesting answers to your question, there are things that make that more likely. Scroll up for some general principles and some scripts.


sillysillysillysilly:

ragingpeacock:

realsocialskills:

I’ve recently made friends with a guy with a seizure disorder and he let everyone in the class know about it, so i figured it wasn’t a big deal but he started having a seizure today in class and it…

sillysillysillysilly said:

Excellent post. I have epilepsy, and most of all what I need afterwards is to be told that im ok, that I had a seizure and that everything is alright. Comfort them of that’s what they need. Mostly what I would add is to ask, “can I ask you about what you need if you have a seiZure?” This sounds less pushy.

matchbook-stories:

Social skills for autonomous people: Getting questions heard

realsocialskills:

People tend not to answer me when I ask a question, even if it’s something I need to know. It’s particularly bad with regards to planning or getting background information on what is happening at a given time. What might I be doing that tells…

matchbook-stories said:

I have a tendency to be very vague about my questions because of some misguided desire to avoid imposing on people.

For example I am planning to adopt a pair of feeder rats from work as pets. When I asked my boss, I said something like, “I’d like to have a couple of those rat pups, may I?” He just chuckled.

What I needed to say is, “I’d like to purchase a pair of rat pups as pets, how much would you like me to pay for them?”

realsocialskills said:

Oh, yeah, that. I do that too. 

cythesomething:

Social skills for autonomous people: Getting questions heard

realsocialskills:

People tend not to answer me when I ask a question, even if it’s something I need to know. It’s particularly bad with regards to planning or getting background information on what is happening at a given time. What might I be doing that tells…

cythesomething said:

One trick I know is to make some kind of motion - e.g., raise your hand - so that you have the person’s attention. Even if you don’t eye contact/inflect, you still have a higher chance of being noticed.

Getting questions heard

wolffyluna:

realsocialskills:

People tend not to answer me when I ask a question, even if it’s something I need to know. It’s particularly bad with regards to planning or getting background information on what is happening at a given time. What might I be doing that tells people answering me is optional? How can I emphasize that getting an answer is important? (I’m pretty sure I’m the problem, since no one else has trouble finding things out from the same people I am talking to.)
realsocialskills answered:

Do any of y’all know other things that get in the way of people noticing questions, and potential workarounds?

wolffyluna said:

In my experience, the inflection for a question is rising in pitch over the last few syllables. You might have to exaggerate that when talking to people with certain accents, because that’s what accent naturally does. (For example, people who speak with Australian accents always sound like we’re asking questions to people with other accents because we almost always go up in  pitch at the end.)

Asking what things mean

 Sometimes people say abstract things that aren’t very comprehensible.

Sometimes this is because they are assuming background knowledge you don’t have.

Sometimes this is because they’re referencing something complicated, and not being clear.

Sometimes this is because they aren’t actually saying much, and are using convoluted words to sound like they are.

It is possible to ask for clarification, but not directly. You can’t say “Did you actually say anything?” But you can often get clarification with one of these kinds of questions:

  • That sounds really interesting, can you say more about it?
  • I’m not sure I understood, can you give me an example?
  • That concept sounds really great, but I’m not sure I quite got it – how does that work in concrete terms?
This frames things as you listening, wanting to understand, and asking for their help in understanding. (Which is in fact what you are doing, even if you suspect that they aren’t saying much.) This usually doesn’t offend anyone, because people like to be understood.

(That said, people do sometimes take offense, and if they start to take offense, back off right away rather than trying to explain the intent of your question. It won’t help.)