Asking the right questions

Last week, while going through my usual K-Pop news binge, I stumbled across this Reddit link which quoted a translated interview of a girl group member, Red Velvet’s Irene. Usually I find celebrity interviews pretty boring. They tend to follow the same routine, ranging from dull questions about what the celebrity is currently working on, to invasive questions digging into their private lives. But this particular interview struck me. The interviewer didn’t focus on the idol’s career or her love life, rather he/she asked Irene how she was feeling at the moment, and from there asked her more questions based on her answers, getting into the details of her interests and her thoughts about herself. The interview wasn’t just a formal routine and didn’t seem to have an ulterior motive to get something out of the celebrity. Rather, it was an interview that asked Irene to have a moment of introspection and to share it with the readers, an interview that aimed to bring out the nature of her thoughts.

The result was surprising. The questions got Irene to open up about her nerves over being interviewed by herself, her desire to maintain distance with the public, and her fascination with the sky. It’s also evident from her answers that, like most people, she too feels self-conscious about her looks and how she presents herself to the public. Her answers help to humanize her to anyone who might have either dismissed her as just another idol, or put her up on a pedestal as some kind of goddess. This is an assumption, but I also think it would be fun for her to answer these kinds of questions as well. Not only is she telling us about herself, but she’s learning about herself too as she articulates her answers. The whole thing reads like a therapeutic interaction.

And that’s the thing about questions–depending on how you ask them, it can either lead people to open up or shut down. Irene’s interview actually reminds me of how my therapist would ask me questions about myself. Like the interviewer, my therapist would ask me how I’m feeling in the moment and then gently question what I mean by certain things. I think she realizes it’s not productive to simply ask her client from the get-go, “So what exactly is traumatizing you and why aren’t you over it?” That’s an interrogative question. It assumes that the person knows the answer and is just withholding information. In reality, most people are unable to answer difficult questions like these. They stunt a person rather than help them to think.

If my therapist sees I’m visibly upset over something, she would start with small steps. “What’s troubling you? What’s on your mind?” After listening to my answer, she would ask me to elaborate what I mean. Eventually I would realize what the actual source of my problem is by answering her questions. For example, if I happen to be upset with a friend that day and I talk to her about it, I would slowly realize that I’m upset with that friend because she reminded me of something hurtful that happened to me years ago. This doesn’t mean that my friend wasn’t wrong in hurting my feelings, but my reaction may have been more intense than warranted. In this way, I discover more about myself with my therapist–about how and why I respond to certain things in a certain way. This process helps me to pinpoint the source of my distress, to identify what I want, and to start thinking about how to go forward.

On days when I’m in a neutral mood, my therapist lets me ramble about whatever I like and engages with me, asking me about the particulars of my interests. Again, she’s not an interrogator. She’s in no rush to get a specific answer from me. Rather, she recognizes that even me talking about my hobbies could lead me to make new discoveries about myself. Our interactions help to remind me that I’m only human, I have my insecurities, but I also have my quirks, and I’m someone whose thoughts are worth articulating and exploring with someone else.

It’s been about four years since I’ve started seeing a therapist, and perhaps because I have been exposed to so many good interviews, I’ve started developing a skill in asking questions myself. One friend first pointed this out to me after my first year of therapy. She said she noticed that my pattern of asking questions was starting to change, and I was getting better at it to the point that it was making her open up about things she wouldn’t normally talk to me about. She considered it a good manipulation technique. Technically, as bad as it sounds, it is a form of manipulation–it’s manipulating people to open up to you, to trust you. But I think as long as you’re not using your questions to fish for information and are only asking because you genuinely care about someone, it’s more helpful than it is harmful.

On my end, I try to ask my friends to elaborate on their feelings when they’re particularly upset and are already confiding in me. But I’m obviously no therapist and I don’t usually get a productive conversation from my questions. Still, I think asking the right questions is a skill worth learning and practicing for anyone. It’s a skill that teaches you to be gentle with people instead of putting them on the spot. It’s a skill that helps people get past surface level interactions. Finally, it’s a true social skill that reminds people that above all, we’re all human and in this together.

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