Slides & Sources: Empowering Your Communication with Questions

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On the request of a few attendees, this is the spot you can download the slides from my Tri-Cities Women in Business 2019 conference presentation.

This was the first time I’ve given a full-length conference presentation on questions, and I so appreciate everyone who was able to attend!

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Download the PDF of the slideshow:

Sources for statistics cited in the presentation:

“It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-Asking Increases Liking” Harvard University, 2017

Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding” – University of California, Santa Barbara, 2012

Blood donation study / more likely to take action: link forthcoming.

Sense and Superstition” New York Times, 2013

UI study shows social class makes a difference in how children tackle classroom problems.” UI Bloomington Newsroom

TEDx | Love the Questions Themselves

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In September of this year, I was offered the incredible opportunity to share my thoughts on the TEDx Coeur d’Alene stage. I was so excited to share my thoughts about how important the questions we ask are in shaping the world we live in. In the talk, I cover:

  • How breaking questions down into informational, rhetorical, and exploratory helps us understand the expectations behind a question.
  • Why asking a question is one of the most respectful acts you can engage in.
  • How questions and our relationship with them differentiates democratic and authoritarian conversations — personally and politically.
  • Some of my favorite responses to passive-aggressive rhetorical questions, and more.

The psychological alchemy of questions

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There’s an alchemy in questions. Somehow that combination of words, tone, and curiosity blend to create conversation, emotional response, and social connection.Asking a question creates a shared framework for communication, and opens us up to possibility. It’s part of why I believe asking questions is one of the most respectful things you can do.

How? Stick with me here, my research nerd is about to show.

Uptalk, or how I learned to quit worrying and love the high-rising terminal.

There’s a linguistic quirk in English that I reference in my TEDx talk. In that speech, I called it “uptalk” or “high rising terminal.” In short, it’s that lift at the end of a sentence that generally indicates that the sentence ends with a question mark.

It’s important to note two things. One – uptalk and high rising terminal aren’t the exact same thing. As Mark Liberman points out in a 2006 Language Log post, there is a difference.

I believe that the “high rising” idea came out of a contested 1990s theory of intonational meaning, which posited a qualitative distinction between high rises and low rises, and assigned uptalk to the category of “high rise” for theory-internal rather than empirical reasons. It’s also possible that some geographical variants of uptalk are really high rising in general, though I haven’t seen any careful studies that support this conclusion.

Second, the term “uptalk” was coined in a 1993 New York Times On Language column to describe using a rising tone at the end of a declarative sentence — when you don’t intend to ask a question. And that article kicked off a veritable flurry of debate and discussion over this so-called “Valley Girl” talk, called everything from a linguistic disease to a complete scourge on our language. It’s a surprisingly similar debate to the one about vocal fry, right down to the fact that it’s nearly entirely female speakers that become the focus of the discussion.

Keeping all of that in mind, in general, lifting your tone at the end of a sentence is a fairly reliable way to indicate that you are asking a question. 

So – what does that mean? I think figuring that out means taking a very close look at how our brains process superstition. Yes, superstition, and how we try and avoid nebulous threats or perceived risks.

Physically pushing away the psychological threat

In a 2013 article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Jane L. Risen, associate professor of behavioral science, Yan Zhang of the National University of Singapore, and Booth PhD student Christine Hosey published an article that looked at the rituals performed with the intention of warding off bad luck.

These are rituals that will probably sound familiar to many. Knocking on a wooden table, throwing salt over our shoulders, or spitting. All of these are actions that are generally taken to protect one’s self from a perceived jinx – a nebulous psychological threat.

Over the course of five experiments, the researchers determined that these physical rituals did, in fact, tend to make people think that they had protected themselves. Their theory is that these superstitions tended to work because of the physical act of pushing something away — called an “avoidant action.” Nearly every superstition about pushing away bad luck includes physically pushing something away from yourself. That act has the subconscious impact of feeling like we’ve pushed what isn’t physically in front of us away as well.

When you ask someone to reverse that action, however — knock up on a wooden table, for example, everything switches. After taking actions that were NOT avoidant, the research subjects felt that they hadn’t protected themselves at all.

In short, pushing things away physically means pushing what you’re thinking about away psychologically. Taking action that welcomed things towards you meant your brain believes that you are welcoming in what you’re thinking about.

How questions open us up to possibility

So – what does that mean for how we ask questions? I’d make the argument that our physical intonation of words has a similar impact as our physical actions. When we have a flat tone at the end of a sentence, we are declaring. That flat tone is the same physical impact as neither pushing something away or pulling it towards you.

We are marking our ground and taking a stand, verbally. When we are feeling like we need to push someone away, make a threat, or otherwise appear like the conversation may be over, we drop our tone. We take an avoidant verbal action, pushing away the perceived threat.

When we ask a question, we lift our tone. By lifting our tone, we’re taking a physical action similar to knocking UP on a table, instead of down. We’re opening ourselves up to the possibility, and welcoming in what we’re thinking about. It’s a physical action that psychologically welcomes in the shared context and indicate our willingness to listen. We subconsciously welcome in the possibility of conversation. It’s a vulnerable place to be. It’s kind of scary. And that is part of what makes it so beautifully powerful.

So, I’m curious…

what framework are you creating?

Goldfish attention spans don’t justify anything.

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At least three times in the last two weeks, I’ve been in meetings where the infamous 8-second time span was cited when talking about the demographic and psycho-graphic “realities” of generations, including the infamous Millennials.

Specifically, the so-called statistic is that most people’s attention span has dropped to 8 seconds (sometimes less), down from 12 seconds just a few years ago. Even a goldfish has a longer attention span! Usually, it’s cited along with hand-wringing about how if a business is going to stay alive, they need to cater to this and figure out how to say what they need to say in mere moments.

Make everything bite-sized and completely digestible. Improve the app, shorten the video, and cheapen your message, just to get the eyeballs.

Here’s the problem. It’s a myth. Complete and utter myth. Every word of it.

The people over at the Ceros blog have done the full breakdown, if you would like to read it yourself. The short version:

  • The research barely measured what it claimed to measure.
  • The paper wasn’t peer-reviewed.
  • The whole thing was funded by Microsoft in order to help sell short interstitial ads.
  • Oh, and the research never actually measured length of attention span — that was a quote thrown in from an un-sourced online search.

Also, if you think about the logic of the statistic, it doesn’t make sense. The so-called generation of a short attention span is also the generation of several edition long series of books — Game of Thrones. Harry Potter. Hunger Games. Of Netflix binge watching. Of a constant side gig or side hustle that takes a ton of attention. Of programming complex and powerful programs. 

2016 Pew Research Center studies found that short and long form written articles tend to get similar numbers of readers, and the longer an article is, the longer readers tend to stick with it.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know a single person who won’t spend hours Googling and researching and watching YouTube videos about whatever it is they are truly interested, excited, and passionate about. Give us three seconds of something intriguing and a hanging question, and we’ll dig in. Heck, that’s why clickbait works. If we got distracted that easily, we’d never click on headlines that ended with “you’ll never guess what happened next!”

Add on to all of this the additional fact that measuring attention spans is notoriously difficult, even before you get to defining what exactly an attention span really is. Or how the heck you measure a goldfish’s attention span.

So, what? The point is still valid, right?

That we’re all distracted as a matter of course. That it’s so much harder now to get someone’s attention, and we all need to just adapt a bit to make our messages easier to digest.

Nope. At least not in that form. This all smacks of another well-known and much rightly-mocked meme. “Millennials have killed …” Millennials haven’t killed whatever industry is being talked about today any more than attention spans are painfully low. It’s like complaining that petticoats are getting smaller, rather than looking at this newfangled women’s fashion trend called pants.

It’s never been a matter of dropping attention spans. It’s a matter of looking for a convenient excuse for what is difficult, or a shocking statistic to prove how different things are. For dealing with the pressures and challenges created by an environment. In many ways, environments created by changes made to deal with the assumptions about what someone wants. Tell us that attention spans are dropping, shorten your content, and then point to the shorter amount of time spent reading as justification for that change.

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is more content more available to us now than there ever has been in the past. That means more decisions to be made every moment, and more competition for those decisions. Many of those decisions also feel more important, because we understand more thoroughly what kind of an impact they may have. Pile this on top of the very real decisions that comes as part and parcel of deep economic and social pressures, and of course decision fatigue comes in to play.

It’s not a matter of less attention available. It’s a matter of making sure that the point you are trying to communicate, the message you are creating, or the story you are trying to tell is something that piques curiousity. Something that has real relevance, not just something re-stated for the tenth time. Something based on anything other than assumptions. Something that highlights what you are uniquely awesome at and have a new idea, insight, or information about. Preferrably, something that respects the language someone speaks and the platform they choose.

In other words, something respectful.

Discussion Topic of the Day at 1,000

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Crossposted at

In the last 208 weeks, I’ve asked my friends a thousand questions. Quite literally. Starting January 14, 2013, I posted a question to my Facebook page for no reason other than to get people’s opinions. The conversation was interesting, so the next day I did the same thing. And again. And continued asking a question intended to spark conversation every weekday thereafter.

In 1,456 days, I’ve asked 1,000 unique questions – and a few dozen duplicates. My little list of 380 or so Facebook friends have posted well over 10,000 comments engaging in discussion on topics ranging from ESP to love, comfort food to political office, and just about everything in between. I’ve got people on my friends list that cover the spectrum in just about every sense of the word, and I have never had to moderate or intervene to keep it civil.

I didn’t have a particular reason for starting this project, other than curiosity about what my friends thought about the things that really didn’t have any other reason to come up. In the beginning, it wasn’t even really a project, just a thing that I did.

In very late 2014, I pulled statistics for the first 500 questions and discovered some interesting tidbits — that the most controversial topic of those 500 was blood donation, for example. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the topics, but I did know I wanted to do something. Several incarnations of various projects were experimented with.

In 2016, I started A Thousand Things to Talk About, a podcast based on those questions. I went all the way back to the very first question and started there, offering 2-3 minutes, every weekday, of research into what was behind each topic, and still quite purposefully not offering my own opinion. I am more interested in what everyone else thought.

I also started pulling the list of questions – eventually each printed on an individual card – out at family events, networking soirees, and social gatherings. I’ve always learned something new and interesting, even about people that I’ve known for years. Previously awkward situations even started settling into respectful, intriguing group conversations I didn’t want to end.

Through 208 weeks, 1,000 questions, more than 10,000 comments, over 250 podcast episodes, more than 28,000 downloads, and lots of conversations, I’ve come to one big conclusion: questions are a key.

Research tells us (a phrase very familiar to anyone who listens to my podcast) that getting to know someone is about making a connection, listening, and identifying with them in some way, shape, or form. Every answer is a chance to engage in conversation with ourselves and others. Every conversation is a chance to develop empathy, understanding, connections, and networks.

To me, questions are a key. Not to any particular lock, but instead to our shared humanity, because they invite connection.

To me, questions are a key. Not to any particular lock, but instead to our shared humanity, because they invite connection. That’s been one of the best things about this particular project; watching social networks of otherwise unconnected people emerge and grow through a shared experience that wouldn’t have existed had someone not simply created space in which it was OK to share a small part of one’s self.

I don’t think questions will solve for world peace, or suddenly make us all perfect people. I do think that asking questions will almost always be a better place to start than making statements, and if my questions help grease a few of those conversational wheels, all the better. I will continue asking questions, professionally and personally, and look forward to what the next 208 weeks might bring.

All of which is really a lead up. In all truth, I’m curious: what’s the best question someone has ever asked you?

A Love Letter To My Pod

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Valentine's Day 2014

Valentine’s Day 2014, done D&D right.

The word “family” has always been a flexible word. I happen to like the fact that “family” is very much a self-defined word, and every person has a slightly different context for it, but calling someone “family” is the near-universal language to share how important someone is in your life, and the details may be personal. As the oft-misquoted saying goes, blood is thicker than water, right?

I’ve never been someone that fit easily into a tribe. Even growing up, in my incredibly accepting and supportive family, I never seemed to quite fit. I found support, love, and passion in the theater, in public speaking, and in swim team, but even in all of these things I have very much been the odd one out. I was the theater tech geek who wanted to be on stage. I was the speech and debate nerd that wasn’t a political science major. I was the fat girl in athletics. I was dating a woman while at a Catholic college. I am bisexual, a sexual orientation that is oft overlooked in the queer spectrum. I could continue to list all the ways I am “different,” but what it really comes down to is that, like most people, I’m a compilation of a thousand wonderful, beautiful contradictions that somehow add up to a complete whole that doesn’t quite easily fit into any pre-defined mold.

Yet somehow, in a very slow process that’s been happening over the last decade, a family has developed. I sometimes call myself “lucky” for my family, even though I know there have been hundreds of tiny little decisions that have added up to the reality I am living in now. Explaining what, exactly, these decisions were, however, has proven almost impossible — with the caveat that it probably has something to do with Spokane Public Radio and turning around one night to attend theater auditions. Point being, though, that the sum total result of millions of factors have resulted in a chosen family that I completely and utterly adore.

I adore my chosen family not only because every single one of the people I include in this group is completely and in their own way, awesome; or because they accept me fully for who I am. It’s not even the fact that we all call ourselves “the Pod” (even though we do, half jokingly), for lack of a better term. It’s because even though we form a semi-cohesive Pod Unit, we are all still independent individuals. I would love and care for and adore and call every one of these people “family” separate from my relationships with the others, and the fact that we can be a chosen family together is icing on the cake. I love that it is without question (but with lots of communication) that we are there for each other, be it harvesting oats, fixing broken toilets, or staying up until all hours of the night sharing secrets at conversational tone that we never thought we’d be comfortable whispering to another soul.

Each one of these people has come into my life, and our shared lives, differently. We’ve stuck it out together through changes in our family, ourselves, and our lives that we never saw coming. We’ve been there for each other through the joys, through the sorrows, through the New Project Energy and the depths of depression.

Each one of the members of my Pod is creative, energetic, passionate, enthusiastic, unique, challenging, inspiring. There is chaos, uncertainty, friction, communication, breakthroughs and slogs. I also have complete trust that should one of us make a decision that the Pod was not the healthiest choice for themselves, that decision would be respected.

I suppose this is part of why the idea of family is so important to me. While it’s been said that “blood is thicker than water” for well over 300 years, the origin of the saying is that “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” I may not share a few specific pieces of familial DNA with my pod, but that fact, to me, strengthens our bond, for it’s a choice we all make constantly, daily, and completely. Our love, respect for, and encouragement of one another does not diminish or lessen the amount of care, compassion, love, and support in the world. It is my honest and sincere belief that our love for one another creates more room in our little slice of the Universe for even more to be found. Our expression of these feelings may take different forms, but above all that expression is both honest and respectful.

So yes, chosen family. I love you. I am in love with you. Most importantly, thank you. For making the choice to be yourselves, to be independent, and for choosing to let me (and us) walk next to you and with you on your journey.

The Power of Your Story

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In a system where data-driven is the lifeblood of business, of corporations, of education, of communication, a story provides personalized color and context. It is less stripped-down, less numerically based and less “big picture important” than the data-driven approach. The story fills in the data that humanizes numbers.

We are all a collection of labels — the things we identify as what makes us “us” — but those labels are nothing more than chapter headings. What creates excitement and interest and power in those labels is the story that tells how they fit together and solve the seeming conflicts. Labels can be limiting — stories can be liberating. Though the opposite can be true and freedom can found in adopting a label, it is the part that label plays in the story of you that creates that space.

Knowing one another’s stories takes effort and takes a willingness to be vulnerable. That vulnerability, in small groups and communities, develops naturally. With groups that know us well, labels become less necessary, because context comes built-in. The further outside our built communities we get, the more important and less precise these labels become.

Reclaiming your story is a huge part of defining who you are, and who you might want to be. Informational and aspirational. The data provides the structure that, in practice, becomes a measure of the authenticity of a story.

A story will always be told. Always. We often crave a fill-in to the labels that we see, perceive, or believe exist. When a story is not provided, we create one. The stories will always be understood in ways that can be perceived by the person hearing (or creating) the story. Knowing a story will always be told, and that vacuum of space between labels will crave filler, telling and reclaiming and claiming your own story is a process not only of self-definition, but also a process of self-discovery that asks us to figure out how we fill in that space for ourselves.

Trying to tell someone else’s story when you do not know it means that you are filling in details as you understand them, details based on your perceptions and ideas. Telling someone else’s story means making assumptions about them.

Telling your own story, though, is a beautiful, powerful, and liberating thing. Owning your story means being willing to live in your own skin, with all of the changes and flexibility and resilience and experimentation that involves. It means being willing to try on different things, see how they fit, keep what works, and change what doesn’t. It means owning that experimental period in college, your terrible taste in music during middle school, all of the choices and experiences that add up to you.

When you are willing to tell your story, even in limited contexts to limited audiences, even to just yourself, then it’s a willingness to not make assumptions about yourself. To define what your own labels mean to you. When your internal space between labels has already been filled, then the story someone else tries to tell about you can have less impact, and the fewer assumptions they have to make. It seems like a path towards creating a more authentic interaction for everyone.