The Case Against
Asking a question is the safest way to access the mind of another person. As such, a question is similar to a syringe and asking works very much like an injection, except that it does not cause any physical pain. Now, similarly to medical substances, there are more and less effective questions. The quality of the question plays the crucial role in getting to know someone’s mind, for which there might be countless reasons: from educational purposes to hiring a new employee. Now, the design of a question is a rather nuanced thing, however, one of the major factors influencing its efficiency is whether the question is personal or impersonal. The former dominate in the discourse to such an extent that arguing against their efficiency feels like not merely going against the grain, but like violating a taboo.
Still, my major argument for the inefficiency of personal questions is that they assume the interlocutor to know himself. It is a bold assumption indeed, especially if one takes into account how much struggle it takes to express oneself, individually decide about what to do in life or even what to dress or eat on a given day. Regardless of this fact, however, people keep asking about ‘you’ and ‘your’ even during the most serious of interviews. Now, from a certain perspective it does seem logical, for who if not the interlocutor is to know her motivations? Yet more often than not, the interlocutors either say what is proper to say or make more or less educated guesses. Claiming the opposite flies in the face of the ancient Greeks and their wise warning “know thyself”.
My second argument against personal questions is that they are not creative. Such questions are by definition limited to introspection which deals exclusively with the past or at best with the present, but they are never oriented on what lies ahead. As a result, the answer to a personal question is always some kind of re-telling or account, but hardly ever a live synthesis of knowledge and experience. There are, of course, the seemingly future-oriented what-would-you type of questions, but they never actually go beyond pure speculation based on the present state of affairs. Undoubtedly, there is a great deal of benefits personal questions can bring to the psychoanalysts and other therapists, but they are of surprisingly little use when it comes to giving vent to a given person’s creative potential.
Last but not least, personal questions have no respect for privacy, which bears negatively on both the sincerity of the answer and the relationship between the interlocutor and the interrogator. All personal questions are not questions about knowledge, expertise or know-how, but they are questions about the kind of person someone is. Much as they are justified in the private sphere where both sides share their insights, they are quite counterproductive if the interrogator is a complete stranger and the communication is pretty much one-sided, like it is in a job interview or a foreign language class for example. Then, the natural human reaction to conform and to protect their privacy either forces untrue answers or leads to their abrupt and premature end.
I remember one question in particular: what do you feel when you are losing money? I bet “f*** off” is the only sincere answer anyone has in his mind upon hearing it, no matter their actual response. Such questions cannot therefore produce a reliable answer, unless the goal of the question is testing someone’s self control.
My whole point is that there are other, more effective and more beneficial ways of interacting with other people than personal questions. This effectiveness counts especially in formal contexts such as teaching, coaching or interviewing. It is a myth that impersonal questions do not allow expressing personal opinions. On the contrary, they allow it to a far larger extent for three basic reasons: they do not falsely assume that people know themselves, they trigger the projection of the personality rather than the uncreative introspection, and finally they free the interlocutors from a great deal of pressures which might otherwise have altered their answers. I therefore cannot but recommend to all educators, coaches and HR staff to get rid of the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘your’ from their questions. It is a little thing, but it starts a real revolution.