Sunday, June 27, 2021

Learning to ask the right questions is always the right thing

One of the side benefits of writing an ethics column for the past 23 years is that there is no shortage of people who feel compelled to tell me what to write about. Those who send questions or suggestions about topics are a gift. There are, however, a whole other group of people who simply want me to agree with them about something.

Early on, I used to believe I couldn’t do much with those types of messages. If, for example, a reader wants me to take on a school system for hiring a superintendent who was mean when they were both children, that kind of falls beyond what I try to do. I can try to help a reader sort out the ethics of holding a grudge, but I won’t jump in and take something on simply because someone else doesn’t like it.

If these 15 months of working remotely and conducting a large part of my life online have reminded me of anything, however, it’s the importance of listening closely and trying to ask questions in a way that helps someone express concerns, hopes, dreams in a way that makes things clear to me.

Throughout the pandemic, my wife, Nancy, and I have each worked online. I have taught from my computer upstairs in our home and she has seen clients from her laptop downstairs. We’ve tried to break up the days by getting out for long walks or masked trips to the local market. But mostly, we have been online using various platforms to stay connected to our work. We are each pretty facile with technology, but I have become her de facto IT department.

When Nancy’s screen would freeze or she was having trouble logging on to the logon screen that enabled her to logon to another logon screen, she would ask if I had a minute to help. When I would see she had something open on her screen she couldn’t seem to navigate out of, initially I would ask: “What did you do?”

I learned quickly how wrong a question that was to ask. For me, it was a question to get at how she ended up at the screen she was on. What she heard in my question was a suggestion she had somehow done something wrong which was never the case. I no longer begin our IT sessions with that question but instead try to get at what she is trying to do to help figure a way to do it. She often figures a solution before I do.

The experience reminded me that listening to people and asking them questions in a way that gets at what matters without sounding accusatory or judgmental is the right thing to do. That reminder caused me to be far more patient with those who write in to tell me I should believe as they do as opposed to asking me how I might believe. By asking them what it is that troubles them about an issue I’ve found that our conversation often leads to something fruitful even if we end up disagreeing.

If we can find a way to talk with and listen to one another, then disagreeing is OK. Not listening is not.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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