I have been exploring Non-violent communication (NVC) for some time now. Recently I have been orienting my focus towards empathetic listening and it’s application in a community learning context.

In doing so I have received some quality feedback, the most striking being, “You ask too many questions!”

This really surprised me. How can we ask too many questions? Isn’t providing a space for others to detail there thoughts a productive exercise? Doesn’t that space allow for the kind of empathy and understanding that we need when expressing the thoughts and ideas we hold dear?

And there I go again with my questions.

Pondering this conundrum, reflecting on it with friends and personally, has taken up a fair chunk of my time recently.

I think I’m starting to find the clear edges to ideas that were fuzzy and ill-defined at the start.


There is so much to unpack in this question it is difficult to properly outline it here. The gist is that every experience, ever interaction exists in isolation. As an empathetic listener we have to be present, existing in the moment only.

In addition, we (as a listener) need to identify the specific context to this encounter. Does the speaker(s) need to be heard, or want feedback? Perhaps the speaker(s) desires our opinion or insight? What is the topic of discussion? How personal are the thoughts being expressed? Do we need to tread lightly or does the speaker wish us to be clear and assert our perspective? How do we adjust ourselves with the ever changing dynamics of the conversation?

How we handle and respond to all of these questions will differ on who we are and how we read each encounter.


Questions are a powerful tool. They can help to illuminate a speaker’s needs as well as clarify the meaning or intention of a speakers utterance.

Questions can also be a major stumbling block to communication. The body language, tone and intention behind our questions have a major impact on how they are received and responded to by our interlocutor.

Considering this fact I have been trying to come up with some identifying markers to these different types of questions. In addition, I’ve been wondering what the benefits and pitfalls to each might be.

1) Targeted questions: The goal of a targeted question is to get the speaker to illuminate a specific point or clarify a specific utterance so that we might better understand their meaning or intention. These questions can be helpful if applied in the right way at the right times. However, they easily can be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The right tone, body language and word choice is vital to conveying the genuineness of our intentions.

2) Targeting questions: The goal of a targeting question is to get the speaker to illuminate a specific aspect so that we might argue the point, steer the conversation in a way that allows us to respond the way we want, or demonstrate our perceived superior knowledge on the subject. These types of questions are seductive to a listener who is bent on making a point or “enlightening” their interlocutor as to a “better” path/way/idea. These questions are dangerous and lead to conflict.

TargetED questions can easily be misinterpreted for targetING questions based on the tone, wording or body language we employ when posing the question. In addition, we need to be aware that our interlocutors personal culture may perceive an attack EVEN IF we are being conscious of the above mentioned obstacles. As an empathetic listener it is vital that in times like these that we effectively filter the emotions behind our interlocutor’s responses so as to understand the meaning and basis for the speakers resistance.

3) Illuminating questions: The goal of an illuminating question is to receive clarification or added depth to a speakers utterance. These questions allow a speaker the space to freely respond. These questions build awareness and understanding of a speaker’s point. Tone, body language and wording are all critical in employing these questions successfully.

4) Directed illuminating questions: These are questions we ask when we want the speaker to clarify or go deeper, but in a specific way we have predestined for the speaker. These questions can pose an obstacle for the questioner because they require us to truly be aware of ourselves and our own intentions. These questions can very easily be formed in an illuminated way (see #3), but when we do not hear an answer that follows an expected path we reframe and ask again and again until the speaker goes in the direction we want. These types of questions can cause immense friction between the interlocutors, easily leading to a breakdown in communication altogether.


Questions can be a tricky business, but they are vital to the successful, meaningful interactions that build connections between two people. With an open heart and mind the right questions can lead to discovery, learning and a strengthened bond. Without these attributes encounters have the possibility of becoming ugly, disconnecting and self defeating.

I am sure these are but a few of the question categories to be considered. I would be very interested to hear thoughts or additions that anyone else may have.


I would like to stress that all of this requires practice and that I, nor anyone else, has all the answers. These are personal, self discoveries I have made and would like to share. I am always open to others discoveries and discussions surrounding the snapshots of thinking that are presented herein on this blog.







5 thoughts on “Questions

  1. Thanks for this. I hadn’t heard the terms targeted and targeting before and they make a nice distinction.
    I have learned to avoid the word “why?” when asking questions. A targeting question will often start with “why?” and raise the defences of the person who is asked “Why did you …” And particularly “Why didn’t you…”
    When I want a targeted question I try to find some way to avoid “why,” for example, “can you explain your thinking that made you decide to…” Or “When did you start to…” Or “What did you expect to happen when you…”

    • Hi Kate,

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment. It is always nice to hear that I’m not the only one struggling with these topics!

      I think the questions you raised pose an interesting question for us. How do we clarify and understand someone when there is some conflict in the communication. In response, I would say that the most important aspect of any response (question or otherwise) is to focus on ourselves using I statements.

      For example:
      Can you explain your thinking that made you decide to….? – This question seems to be less directed and judgemental than your first examples, but it still feels like it’s my (re:the interlocutor’s) fault for the breakdown in communication. If we are coming from a place of genuineness and ask this question we may get the response we desire, but it may also lead to taking an unhelpful direction.

      If I were to pose a question along the lines of the one above, I might say…
      I am unsure of what you meant when you said/did “X”. Could you help clarify it for me?
      For me, this question addresses my confusion and provides an invitation, rather than an obligation, to clarify and help me understand.

      Thank you again for adding to the discussion here. I believe it is rich and deeply rewarding for my growth. For that I have an immense gratitude. I would love to hear your thoughts any time.


  2. Questions are great, but sometimes you have to respect the silence.
    I sometimes wonder whether my need to *understand* conflicts with my friend’s need for me to just *listen* and *be there*. After all, being present for my friend means it’s not about me.
    Like you said, context is very important.

    • Hello and welcome!

      Thanks for the comment and checking in. I completely agree with you, sometimes listening and just being there is the best course of action. Perhaps I should have added that stipulation at the beginning!

      This post was given life thanks to some self discoveries I have been making while learning in community at graduate school. Mostly, when thinking about questions I was thinking of the situations we find ourselves in when in such a community. But I find that, as Kate highlighted below, it also applies to conflict resolution. In addition, when in other contexts, I find it enormously helpful to provide the ear for someone to be heard.

      Thanks again for highlighting this point! I believe it is an invaluable addition to the discussion.


  3. Thanks for putting this together John. It’s a illuminating post on a subject that I think can easily be taken for granted. Although I haven’t often heard people tell me, “you ask too many questions”, Many times I have been acutely aware of how I easily become the interviewer. In these cases I am aware that I am leading from my own curiosity.

    As you mentioned, and as Kate and Karuna have also connected to, context is everything isn’t it. Why is the speaker speaking? What does the speaker want from me as a listener? Is the moment focused towards creating a friendship, or are we trying to work through something (internal or interpersonal conflicts)? It seems that before we can begin asking questions, perhaps these are the questions we first need to clarify.

    As always, I’m inspired by your explorations. Keep them coming and all the best in your community of learning!

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