Which Question are You? On the Art of Asking

It’s no accident that one of Instagram’s most popular features enables followers to ask questions of each other. Everyone loves being asked about themselves, not necessarily out of pride, but because, as human beings made for community, we naturally feel most supported when others express an active interest in our lives.

Now, “Which question are you?” sounds like a clickbait Buzzfeed quiz or, more likely, the personality test nobody asked for but everyone will still end up taking once the Enneagram finally runs its course. My goal in this post is not to create this sort of test or to sell you personalized coaching sessions, but I have put a fair amount of thought into the following project and it may be worth sharing.

You see, I am bad at asking questions. I either stick to small talk, go too deep all at once, or stay silent. Worse, sometimes I just ramble without asking the person I’m with anything, and I am fully aware that this comes across as uninterested or even selfish. I genuinely do want to get to know and care for people on a deeper level; practicing the art of asking—in addition to truly active and empathetic listening—is a powerful way to develop this interpersonal curiosity through conversation.

I’ve noticed in talking to my boyfriend that he always asks about the people in my life and how they are doing, whereas I am often much more concerned with asking what he is doing; he asks more relational questions while I ask more logistical questions. He also tends to ask “why” whereas I am more prone to ask “when” or “where.”

Similar patterns are observable in my other relationships. My roommate is excellent at asking how I’m doing and my mom is incredibly thoughtful in asking about who is involved in my life.

What. When. Where. How. Why. Who.

It seems that there are two key groups of questions, the first being the details: what, when, and where.

And the second group being the development: how, who, and why.

Knowing which questions I tend to ask and which questions my friends and family wish I would ask has become something of an obsession lately. I have been trying to ask more questions in general, but it recently occurred to me that it’s not about asking more questions or even about asking better questions, but about asking the right kinds of questions.

I feel best known, for instance, when people ask what I am working on, what I like to do in my free time, what I hope for in the next year. And I feel most valued when people seem genuinely interested and appreciative of what I do. Likewise, I tend to ask people what they are working on and am more prone to ask about people’s projects and careers than their feelings, though I am doing my best to grow in this area.

Similarly, I also tend to ask when and where because, being a planner and something of a perfectionist, I like to know what to expect and how to best be prepared. As a result, I often ask people where they like to study and when I can expect to see them again; for me, these questions are about forming a solid plan to facilitate future meetings and foster companionship.

Rather than simply recognizing my preferred questions and forcing other people to cater to my personality, though, I hope to use this realization to better engage with others in dialogue and relationship. Recognizing that someone I love is more of a “who/why” questioner will help me ask better questions about his/her relationships, motivators, and goals, ultimately deepening our communication and understanding.

Again, this is not a comprehensive theory by any means, nor will I create a catchy quiz to help you all sort out new identities based on the 5 Ws and 1 H (there are too many competing numbers and letter combinations out there already anyway). I do think, though, that the following may prove helpful to those of you who, like me, find yourself struggling to know what to say—or better, what to ask.

Questions and Tendencies:

What: From my personal experience, people who ask what-based questions tend to be focused, task-oriented, and pragmatic. They want the facts and checklists and step-by-step plans for success. However, these people are likely to also be highly-conceptual, potentially more interested in understanding theories and projects than relationships or emotions. To encourage these individuals, consider asking about their current pet projects, and offering positive comments about their work.

Where/When: I’ve grouped these together as they are both centered on planning and preparation. Again, from my experience, these askers are often regimented individuals who value foresight and preparation. Alternately, these individuals may be prone to worry; asking about time and place may be a way of creating a less-anxious future. Continually asking where or when-based questions may be a way of easing the stress of scheduling, securing quality time in relationships, and/or voicing expectations.

Who: I love people who ask who-based questions because they inspire me in their care for others. These askers are likely very caring and relational, even asking about the friends of friends of friends in an effort to get to know someone through their social circle. They will likely want others to show the same care for their community and appreciate it when others check in on their loved ones as well. These individuals thrive on questions that foster deeper companionship and a broader sense of community.

How: There are two types of “how” questions: emotional and technical. Those who ask “How are you?” and follow up with specific inquiries about a person’s wellbeing are demonstrating a more emotionally-aware version of how-based questions. More akin to when/where/what askers are those who ask “How?” in order to gain practical insight into the method by which something is accomplished. Both versions, however, can evidence an intrinsic curiosity and desire for deeper knowledge which I admire. (Interestingly, “knowledge” itself carries a similar dual nature as we can know about a person or thing, or genuinely seek to know a person or thing.) Askers of both types will appreciate reciprocated curiosity and active listening.

Why: More than once, I’ve been frustrated by someone daring to ask me “Why?” because this question cuts to the heart of the others. Those who are careless with it may come across as cynics, while those who never ask it may lack discernment. Those who ask why-based questions often are value-driven, desiring to act in accordance with their well-considered ideals. Asking why-based questions of another person can either express interest in or challenge their fundamental motivations, so it must be approached with sensitivity. However, this may render “Why?” the most telling question of all, and those who ask it tactfully may learn a great deal about others and themselves.

So, what do you think of this idea? Or, maybe, who do you think of when reading this? Or, where/when do you see this being applicable in your life? How do you think this little thought-project may be helpful?

For once, the “Why?” of the matter is simple. Why write or read or share this article? Why consider the different ways in which we ask questions?

Why? Because, I hope, we desire to be better equipped to communicate effectively, care personally, and connect meaningfully, and asking the right kind of questions might just be a good way to start. We might practice leaning into the questions that we naturally ask well—with good questions leading to more, deeper questions—as well as broaden our curiosity to encompass the full range of asking.

Preeminent Performance

In my “Redeeming Culture through Music” class, we were asked the following question:

“Which is most important in music: the composer, the performer, or the listener?”

The class more or less unanimously expressed that the three persons are equally important. After all, if there is no composer, there is nothing to perform and if there is nobody to perform, why bother to compose? Furthermore, without either of these, there is no reason or even opportunity to listen. In fact, these three roles are so remarkably interrelated that it is difficult to define or even discuss one apart from the other two and often an individual musician may (and should) practice more than one of these roles.

It seems, however, that although there is an almost triune relationship between the composer, performer, and listener, it is worth realizing that the composer and listener are mediated by the performer and, indeed, the performer ideally acts as both composer and listener. In performing a piece, a musician is interpreting and expressing with a unique intention, thus co-composing while also being the mode by which the original composer is sharing his ideas with an audience. Without the performer, these “ideas” would be limited to the mind of the composer; after all, notation is not truly music any more than words are truly that which they describe. The composer relies upon the performer to breath life into the form of his work and, through the performer, the music is made.

The performer is also the most active listener. It is immediately clear when a performer is not listening to his music and it is rightly said that while a musician might hear the note as he plays, the true artist hears it before. To play well, to bring to life a work in collaboration with the composer, the performer must also be the greatest of listeners.

Communication too must be mentioned, for without the performing artist to produce the sounds imagined by the composer, listeners or audience members cannot experience and participate in the music. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her beautiful devotional book, Walking on Water: 

“Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn.”

A piece of music might exist conceptually in the mind of the composer, but without the performer as its communicator, those who are mere listeners will not be able to hear, enjoy, and ponder it. The performer, then, is not only the embodiment of both composer and listener, but the mediator between the original composer and the awaiting listeners.

At this merely human level, it seems that of composer, performer, and listener, the performer (if we are forced to choose one) is the most vital, for he is both of the others, as well as a communicative mediator. It becomes apparent through scriptural synthesis that this answer is consistent theologically as well.

Here is where I must clarify: I do not mean to suggest that the relationship of composer, performer, and listener is a perfect parallel to the Trinity. (I have laughed at too many #AlsoNotLikeTheTrinity posts to risk it!) However, I will venture to suggest that music, like all arts, is incarnational, and that the composer, performer, and listener wonderfully image the intermediary work of Christ between God the Father and His creation, mankind.

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” – Madeleine L’Engle

First of all, what do I mean that “art is incarnational”? The production of art is to put ideas into a sensory, communicable form. Books are ideas set in words; painting or sculpture are visual and tangible expressions of the artist’s idea; music differs slightly in that a person, rather than a medium such as a book or canvas, is needed to produce the audible product. But even (and perhaps especially) in this case, the music is an idea made actual through the performance; music is an idea incarnate as organized sound.

Already, there is an echo of Christ in the word “incarnate,” and rightly so. The idea that music is brought fully into being by the mind of the composer and through the performer as co-composer is reminiscent of John 1:1-3:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (ESV)

God (the Father) creates as a mind imagines, while the Son manifests as the Word communicates. Ideally, a composer would be also performer, thus imaging the perfect unity of the Trinity. Even with a separate composer and performer, though, the reflective relationship is present: the composer creates conceptually and, through the power of the performer, communicatively.

This brings us to the listeners. Controversial composer, Arnold Schoenberg, believed that:

“A real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.”

Theologically, based on the parallels I seek to draw, there is some truth here. God creates out of His overflowing delight and the Genesis narrative immediately reveals God’s pleasure as He deems each piece of creation “good.” However, this delight indicates that God formed all things also in order to share this wondrous joy. When God crowns His creation with His own image, mankind, He pronounces it finally, “very good.”

Here and throughout Scripture (consider the Psalms as one such vast example) it is apparent that God in His infinite goodness and love made all that there is for His own right pleasure, but also with the gracious desire to communicate Himself and His creativity with His image bearers: mankind, the listeners.

This brings us back to incarnation. Consider Colossians 1:15-17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (ESV)

Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh, is fully divine and fully dust, fully God and fully man. By Christ all things were made and in him all things are held together; he was the means by which all is made and remade, but also is the true image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word that speaks of the Divine Mind, making manifest what is “too wonderful” for mankind (Psalm 139:6, ESV).

Christ is the mediator, the co-creator who yet condescended in mercy to listen and to teach. He is the Word, incarnation, and — in this instance — the truest of performers, for through Him we receive reconciliation and understanding, for though Christ walked in flesh among us, He is one with our Creator.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:18-20 (ESV)

Although composer, performer, and listener are each necessary and impossible to isolate from each other, we find that the performer is ideally both composer and listener, as well as the mediator between an unhearing audience and the seemingly-incomprehensible ideas of the composer. Within the context of Christianity, we find parallels that reveal the incarnational aspect of the performer’s work and resonate with the truth of Christ’s manifestation and mediation. Performers, then, in their practice, image the preeminence of Christ as they bring music to life.