Across the classes that I teach, I devote quite a bit of attention to the topic of formulating and delivering good questions. Whether it’s my Counseling students learning to ask effective probing questions to future clients or my Cross-Cultural Psychology students practicing how to appropriately inquire about another person’s cultural background, gaining the skill of asking questions is an important learning outcome.
But it strikes me that I do not spend nearly as much time teaching students about the flipside of asking questions—namely, answering them. That is, what are effective and ineffective ways to respond to queries posed by another person? I can certainly turn to some general principles of good communication as a broader connection (e.g., LaRay Barna’s  work on intercultural communication), but there is something nuanced about the particular type of communication effort to satisfy another person’s uncertainty, curiosity, or just a practical need to know.
As I started to take mental notes on important principles to keep in mind when answering questions, I found inspiration in an unlikely setting: a Facebook group for dog owners.
My family recently welcomed a puppy into our home. Because we have little to no experience in raising a dog, we joined a large Facebook group that was created online for overwhelmed dog owners like us to ask training- or behavior-related questions. So far, we have utilized the group to pose a few different questions about behavioral concerns (e.g., excessive play-biting). We posted our inquiries on the Facebook page thinking that there would be quick answers; each time we posted, we were surprised by the wide-ranging responses not only in content but also in the way that the responses were worded. This was true for the majority of the questions that other people in the group posted as well.
After having read through many responses to questions posted on the Facebook group page, with a reasonable level of confidence I can name and describe common types of unhelpful responses or answers—“profiles” of ineffective answers, if you will. Below, I briefly describe these, with the hope that the observations that I share can help you make connections to settings in which you regularly find yourself responding to questions. Perhaps you are an educator like me, and you would like to continue to explore ways to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of your students. Or you might be an intercultural expert and you would like to expand your toolkit in addressing inquiries about culture, especially those sticky and difficult ones. It doesn’t have to be in a professional setting; perhaps you are thinking about the upcoming holiday gatherings with family, and you know that there will be some tough questions directed your way by some family members.
Here are the common types of unhelpful answers that I observed on the Facebook page:
1. Impose an agenda. A while ago, I posted what I thought was a pretty straightforward inquiry on the Facebook group page: “What are some ways to keep my dog off the couch?” In response, a few responders commented, in essence, “Why would you not want the dog on your couch? They are a part of your family. Just let them hop on the couch.” I do not doubt the sincerity of these responders in offering what they believed was an important perspective. But in doing so, they brushed aside my need captured in my question and inserted their own agenda in how they responded.
Sometimes, our own passion about a topic gets the best of us in answering questions. In my own teaching, like some people on the Facebook group, I sometimes feel tempted to override a student’s question with a “better” one (e.g., “Actually, maybe you should be wondering about this instead…”). I might even justify the redirection in my mind by telling myself that I know better as the teacher and therefore I am helping the student, just like the Facebook responders likely did in offering their responses. But the Facebook group experience is a good reminder that answering a question well requires me to set aside my own preferences and passions to meet the needs of the questioner.
2. Assume shared context. Some folks respond to questions assuming that the questioner shares the same context as them. One example from the Facebook group is when a response is provided assuming that the original poster is located in the same geographic location as the responder, only to be found out that they are not; they might be literally on the other side of the globe. A response that presumes, for example, that everyone in this world has equal access to a dog park (or that a dog park is even a thing) is imposing a shared context that is likely to be incorrect.
In counseling, trainees learn about the importance of checking one’s own external frame of reference and relying on an internal frame of reference to be able to empathize with the client’s experience (Nelson-Jones, 2015). To utilize an external frame of reference is an approach that is akin to assuming that the contextual factors are fully shared between the questioner and responder; it is important that, instead, an internal frame of reference is replied upon, even if it takes more time and effort to figure out what the questioner might be saying. LaRay Barna (1994) also write about something similar—the assumption of similarities between communicators that can serve as a barrier in intercultural communication.
3. Lead with credentials. Some commenters like to cite one’s own credentials to justify why their responses should be valued above others. In the Facebook group, a common refrain goes something like, “I have worked as a dog trainer for x number of years, and this is what I think…”, with the implication that whatever follows that statement should be accepted wholeheartedly. I have observed some outlandish or questionable suggestions from those claiming that their training justifies their responses.
In my setting, this type of responding is akin to someone saying something like, “Well, I took Cross-Cultural Psychology and so that legitimizes my response,” or the cringe-worthy “My best friend is _________, so I can’t be racist.” Or in my world of those with highest degrees in their fields, justifying perspectives with “I have a doctorate, so take my word for it.”
4. Over-rely on resources. Sometimes well-intentioned responses include an abundance of links to books, articles, blogs, videos, and other materials. It is not uncommon to see a response on the Facebook group page in which the entirety of the message is a series of links. There is a time and place for sharing published materials in response to questions, of course. But many times, the sharing of links, without context, can be equivalent of throwing down a stack of books on a student’s desk and walking away. A more helpful way of responding would be to provide personal commentary, even if brief, that accompanies the shared resources. How might the shared links be helpful in light of the original question?
I shared four ineffective ways of responding to questions on a Facebook page, making connections to teaching, to diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and to everyday living. But let me conclude with a brief summary of what I have personally found to be most helpful, based on my experience of posting questions on the dog Facebook group page.
In a nutshell, the most helpful answers have been those that achieve the difficult balance of the empirical, theoretical, and experiential; those that not only include resources but a personal commentary of what specifically was beneficial for the responder; those that offer a few different options (try this; if it doesn’t work, try that); and those that are clearly being articulated by experts but also reflect humility in their tone.
For those of you who find yourself regularly answering inquiries from others, such as inquiries stemming from genuine curiosity, skepticism, or simply the need to know, I hope that some of the principles that I have outlined here are helpful in thinking about your own postures and actions in the art and science of answering questions well.
Barna, L. M. (1994). Stumbling blocks in intercultural communication. In L.A. Samovar & R.E. Porter (Eds.), Intercultural Communication: A Reader (7th ed., pp. 337-346). Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Nelson-Jones, R. (2015). Basic counselling skills: A helper's manual (4th ed.). Sage.