How to Ask (Great) Questions

Questions Lead to Discovery.  Why Don’t We Ask More Questions?

Matt Bailey talks with linguist and educator, Norah Jones about the importance and value of learning to ask questions. Questions enable us to give voice to our curiosity and “tap into humanity.”

Unfortunately, in too many environments (home, school, corporate culture) we are discouraged from asking questions, as they delay meetings, challenge assumptions, or create additional work. Questions can be seen as disruptive or challenging, yet they create clearer definitions and enable different approaches to solve problems.

Give people permission to think. Train yourself and them to ask questions, and you’ll find an untapped source of innovation and imagination.


[00:00:00] Norah Jones: Human language, whether it’s the culture of the classroom, the culture of business, the cultures of communities, of different ethnicities, of different nationalities, all of our languages and cultures are a matter of listening, to be able to ask questions, to be able to receive first responses, and then follow up because of the listening and the opening.

That’s also how we get to folks that, by the time that they’re interested in becoming employed, have a skillset in speaking and writing, because they’ve been practicing this as human beings purposefully, not just for academic, but because they’re human, for years.

[00:00:51] Bumper Intro-Outro: Welcome to Endless Coffee Cup, a regular discussion of marketing news, culture, and media for our complex digital lifestyle. Join Matt Bailey, as he engages in conversation to find insights beyond the latest headlines and deeper understanding for those involved in marketing. Grab a cup of coffee, have a seat, and thanks for joining.

[00:01:19] Matt Bailey: Well, hello and welcome to another edition of the Endless Coffee Cup podcast. And I have to say, I’m always excited about doing these, but today I’m another level of excited. I’ve got with me a great guest. We’ve had a number of pre-podcast conversations, and every time I keep getting new ideas. Uh, my guest today is Norah Jones.

And, Norah, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, uh, and your business, and why I contacted an educator and linguist, uh, to be a part of this podcast today.

[00:01:55] Norah Jones: Well, that’s great, Matt, thank you so much for, for the opportunity to be here with you. I’m very excited about your podcast and excited to be part of it here, in a little way.

And I sure want your listeners to know that you are interviewing in fact, an educator, not the singer. I moonlight as a young person, but I am the original Norah Jones, even the married name. Yes, I am an educator by background, although I’m an accidental one. What I am by background is a person whose father was a refugee immigrant, in this case from Eastern Europe. And his experience linguistically, and educationally, and culturally, informed me even before I realized that it was forming me as a young person.

And when I had the opportunity to go over to Croatia, which is where he came from, experience my family, experience their languages, experiences the various different cultures that I didn’t even know existed, because most of us don’t know we have a culture until we come across others, that that transformed what I was interested in doing.

Now, I was planning, because I just loved language but didn’t major in any of them, I just love them, that to take my languages and become, as I think every linguist wants to become, a person that interpreted for the United Nations. I got way late in that a little bit, uh, ended up married and on a farm in south central Virginia, which still astonishes me, but the world is a big place, Matt, and there’s lots of cool things to do.

So I was able to be a classroom educator, a supervisor working in world language publishing for many years and now have, well, I have had my Fluency Consulting LLC for many years, now as the sponsor for, whereas the center for my podcast, it’s about language with Norah Jones, have a chance to have on board wonderful speakers like yourself, educators, folks from all walks of life, all on the purpose of speaking about language and culture.

[00:04:03] Matt Bailey: Wonderful. I’m looking forward to it. Let’s dive in.

[00:04:06] Norah Jones: Sounds great. Well, Matt, I’m excited to talk with you and I know that, and I’m looking at your SiteLogic, and when I see the various wonderful strategic workshops that you provide, and I especially note the fervor with which folks thank you for the clarity of your work, your ability to create words and approaches that take complexity and turn it into something more straightforward, and to do it in a humorous way. That sounds like a great background. How did you get to do that?

[00:04:44] Matt Bailey: That is a great, great question. I don’t think I’ve been asked that before. So my start was in the mid-90’s, you know, I was out of university, I had an interest in the internet, but not really a way to do more with it. So I went into real estate. Now I had a journalism background, but what that taught me is that I didn’t want to be in journalism. I was, I was money driven. So I went into real estate and I got into selling commercial properties, hospitality properties, bed and breakfasts, things like that.

And I realized very quickly that the market exposure that I had with local advertising was very small and I needed to hit a national or international audience with some of the properties that I had. So I started building websites. And so I taught myself programming, I taught myself analytics, I taught myself all of these things. And I think part of that experience made it easier to relate to people because I did not come from a technical background.

I hate math, but I love language. And I, and I love, my mother said I was a born salesperson, but I think part of that is my father was a pastor and my mother was a teacher. So explaining, teaching, talking, has always been a fundamental part of our family.

[00:06:09] Norah Jones: That’s fascinating. And isn’t it interesting that you, indeed, went right to the linguistic part of it? The language part, the power there. That’s great, Matt.

[00:06:19] Matt Bailey: Thank you, Nora. I, where I want to start our discussion is, because we, we talked a number of times before here, and one of the things that I think just resonated with both of us, is the ability to ask questions. And I’ve seen a couple of examples.

Now, there was a recent study that was done in business to business selling, and they were blaming the virtual selling because of the pandemic and people working from home that buyers weren’t responsive, uh, they saw sales go down, but yet when they interviewed the people that the sellers were trying to sell to, it was a problem with basic sales skills. And one of the overwhelming comments was, “They don’t ask me what my problem is.”

[00:07:13] Norah Jones: Ah.

[00:07:14] Matt Bailey: And I see this in a lot of areas where it’s almost, well, I think even Neil Postman, who I love to quote, he said that question asking is the best tool that humans have. And I feel like we have lost the ability to number one, ask questions, number two, the ability to ask good questions.

[00:07:38] Norah Jones: Those are two beautiful prompts. Absolutely. Please continue that question, but that was beautifully stated, that parallel.

[00:07:46] Matt Bailey: Well, thank you. Thank you. How have you seen this, you know, from an educator standpoint, but also from a linguistic standpoint, uh, asking good questions? Where do you see our culture, society, is it something we’ve lost or is it something we’re just not teaching?

[00:08:06] Norah Jones: Well, I think it’s interesting background, Matt. Those are such wonderful questions that, thank you for the questions. The questions about questions is an excellent way to start. We are in our educational system, historically I think, having related often to the yes-no type of question, the information-based question where the question is designed to come from an expert who already knows what the answer is, and to evoke that same answer from a learner.

That pattern, when followed for many years, makes it seem like a normal way of approaching life. But in fact, before formal education where facts were being passed on that way, most questions were asked around a storytelling environment where people asked, “why” questions. Why do we exist? Why is the sun doing that? Why does grandma totter instead of run? Any number of really excellent questions, often not so much to do with facts, although some of those were facts, but a lot having to do with what we observe about human behavior.

[00:10:00] Storytelling and the asking of “why” is really coming back, then the point of view of training for educators and pedagogically speaking, to ask more, “why” questions. I myself saw in my own students, that two things were very important. One was to ask questions that engaged them in thinking about “why,” or things that they could not just get to a single answer. They had to answer in a way that engaged their imagination.

And it was coupled, and I feel very grateful to have been part of a research initiative years ago. It was a three-year research with our school system in which I just, I ate it up tremendously because it would combine the power of asking open-ended “why” based storytelling type questions, with wait time. And lot of the people that employed wait time and the research were folks that came from subject areas that were more like social studies or English.

My area was world languages, specifically teaching Spanish and French, a lot of beginning students. And I did some action research in that, providing for questions both that were for practice purposes and also for discussion purposes combined with wait time. And when that was done, the impact on students’ understanding, engagement, clarity, ability to return and to ask the question of someone else, ask another question, a better question of someone else, was, was tremendously improved.

And then Matt, if I might, just, uh, one more example of something that just really moved me. I became by accident if you will, by someone else’s request, a representative for a publishing company. And I remember to this day, the power of showing up on a campus where there was an exhausted Spanish teacher coming out from the building in which I wanted to go.

And I greeted her and I told her which publishing company I was from and she said, “I don’t even want to talk to you if you’re not a Spanish teacher.” And I said, “Well, luckily I am a Spanish teacher.” And I said, “What is it that you are looking for? What do you hope to do?” And she said, “I want grammar.” And I asked her, “What do you hope to do with grammar? Why is grammar important to you?” And she said, “I want my students to communicate better.”

Well, now Matt, to those of us in the world language education field, so those are often considered to be two different things.

[00:12:25] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:12:26] Norah Jones: Because I didn’t jump into answering the grammar question, or the grammar need, we had a wonderful conversation and the district ended up adopting the materials that I was showing to them for communicative purposes.

So, I hope I addressed a little bit of the question that you had about questioning.

[00:12:43] Matt Bailey: Yes, you did. It’s very interesting because even though we are, I would say we’re in different areas, but yet there’s so much the same.

There was a discussion on LinkedIn last week about a fictional, yet pervasive situation where a manager asks for data, and they receive the data, and then they ask for more data, and the analyst gives them more data, and very similar.

“What do you want?” “Why, I want data.” But then, “Why do you want that? What is it,” I love how you, you phrase that, “What are you hoping to achieve? What is it that you want?” And if the manager would just share, “This is the problem I have,” or “This is what I’m trying to solve.” The analyst would be able to not only, you know, just stop regurgitating data, but either direct or find specifically what will answer that question because, and one thing I’ve learned in the data field, it’s rarely in one place.

One chart will not answer your question. Uh, if it’s a good question, it’s going to take a lot of identifying where the answer is and let’s go find it and bring it together. But there, especially in this business area, efficiency seems to take over.

[00:14:07] Norah Jones: Ah.

[00:14:07] Matt Bailey: And, I, I’ve made this joke numerous times in my training and, it’s funny because sometimes I’ll, I’ll talk about a situation and I’ll bring it up, and then all of a sudden I see people nodding. And when they’re like, “Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about.” And one situation in particular is an agency comes in to share what they’ve done. And the representatives are getting the report and the agency is going through a 50-slide deck of charts and tables and graphs.

And, and I, and I posed the question, “How many of you just sit there and shake your head, even though you don’t know what they’re talking about?” And then at the end of the meeting, nobody asks a question. Now, the reason why they don’t ask the question is because no one wants to be “that person” that asks a question and makes everyone stay another 10 minutes.

[00:15:01] Norah Jones: Yes.

[00:15:01] Matt Bailey: Because everyone’s ready to get out.

[00:15:02] Norah Jones: Please let us leave. Please let us leave.

[00:15:05] Matt Bailey: And so I pose that, that question, that, “Do you realize that because you don’t ask questions, you will never see improvement and you will be doomed to repeat that same meeting every month for the rest of your career, because no one’s going to change?”

[00:15:21] Norah Jones: And isn’t it fascinating, I take you back to what you said before you began that particular story. Efficiency. Efficiency. What could be less efficient than redoing, or never accomplishing, or accomplishing only in part, that which was your purpose?

In order to be able to, to rush through additional data, or to get more on, it’s surprising, you’re speaking about online marketing and you’re speaking about training people in the marketing field, but I have in my head here, the image of, it’s very efficient to do an activity, I am thinking of one specific one in a textbook, which has 12 questions. Just get her done.

[00:16:12] Matt Bailey: Right, right.

[00:16:14] Norah Jones: But if one says, “What is our purpose here?” provides a bit of data as it were, and then says, “How did the data, how does that serve your needs?” And spend time reflecting because this particular, literally this particular activity of 12 questions in front of students with the questioning and then the wait time allowed for the reflection, which allowed for students to begin to bring in additional questions they had and specifically information that they had, that I didn’t know about the neighborhood in this case.

And we ended up with a significantly higher achievement on the purpose for which we were doing that doggone exercise anyway, which was to speak about where things were found and how we, and when we went there. This is important in language acquisition, of course. But the fact is that they became so focused on the why and the bigger picture, that they more or less effortlessly went through working with the communication elements that otherwise they would have been afraid to use, they would have probably used more badly, and they would have been embarrassed to make more sounds because it weren’t perfect.

It seems very analogous to what you are saying when you come to the end of a meeting and people are afraid to make a sound potentially just to leave.

[00:17:47] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:17:47] Norah Jones: But also to accomplish their purposes.

[00:17:49] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:17:50] Norah Jones: Do you agree, Matt, does it seem analogous to you?

[00:17:52] Matt Bailey: Oh, absolutely. It’s efficiency as defined by, I would say the instructor or facilitator, is our goal for efficiency, to get this done in a timely manner and move on to the next problem or the next meeting? Or are we trying to be efficient in business, efficient in our learning? What’s the goal? What are we trying to accomplish? So it depends I think a lot of how you’re defining efficiency, because that will be the justification for not asking questions or spending that extra 10 to 15 minutes in exploring things a little deeper.

[00:18:31] Norah Jones: You know, Matt, it’s so wonderful to feel, uh, the connection between what we would label in the world language education field as proficiency. That I never thought about it in terms of what you are speaking about, with regard to marketing and to training forces and getting quality work done for corporations, companies, organizations. The turn to proficiency in the world language education world means that questions of all types are asked in order to become proficient in the language, not to accomplish the finishing of a chapter, the accomplishment of a textbook, the filling out of the grammatical chart, which is the equivalent of answering all of the data point questions, it strikes me.

[00:19:25] Matt Bailey: Absolutely. There’s you know, the check boxes, you can go through that. You know, I’ll say this, probably one of the, and I teach this a lot in, especially when I teach analytics, which can be a very boring and dry subject. I’ve seen the reviews.

[00:20:00] Uh, but I teach people that to do analytics properly, and I look at it more of, who are the greatest analysts I’ve ever worked with? The one thing they had in common is they could ask questions. And they ask great questions. And the questions were all focused on business efficiency, business profitability.

It wasn’t that they had a great business knowledge, but they would ask good questions about, “Why is this like this and could it be improved? And if it was improved, what would the impact be?” They’re great questions. And when I was hiring people into my agency, that was what I watched for, is what kind of questions they’ll be asking. If they ask how-to questions, right away that tells me they’re not self-motivated. They’re not doing their own investigation to do their job better.

Put it this way, here’s one of my best analysts I had, I gave him a task and afterwards he said, “Well, how will I know the impact of that? How do you measure that? And what does it look like?”

[00:20:45] Norah Jones: Ah.

[00:20:46] Matt Bailey: Oh, immediately, I know I’m like, “Oh, let me show you.”

[00:20:50] Norah Jones: Yes.

[00:20:50] Matt Bailey: You know, then I showed him more stuff, and here’s how you can measure this, and here’s what happens. And he kept asking, well, then now he’s analyzing. So now he’s analyzing what he did, what I’m showing, and so he’s putting the, everything together, and it’s creating new questions, and you could just see the wheels turning and it was all because he asked the right question, rather than just that, “Well, how do I do this?”

Uh, which I equate that to, “How do I make you happy?”

[00:21:22] Norah Jones: Yes. And it is the rough equivalent. No question. Well, there may be hope, Matt, in the sense, or at least for language learning, and I think it’s happening in other educational discipline areas, and that is many students, and I, especially those that are currently found in our schools, both in the K-12 and also colleges, and immediately afterwards are of a generation whose, shall we say reputation, okay, is appropriately, “I need to understand what impact this is going to have in my life.”

They, like many students before them, but very effectively, are asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” And part of what happens in language education is that the, “Why am I doing this?” which was answered very rapidly, “To speak with other people,” is now becoming more finessed.

And because of the proficiency being developed with regard to a definition, examples, ways of working towards the achievement of various proficiency levels, now students are not only told why, but also given evidence directly in front of them so that they get feedback for what they’re doing and see scaffolded, as you have spoken about with your work, scaffolded direction in which they can move to accomplish the objective of being able to communicate clearly with someone, not conjugate, that’s a tool, but not, that’s not the purpose, but to interact with people that are in target language communities locally or around the world.

And that’s, I think, going to be a very powerful change for those folks that you will come across in the work that you do.

[00:23:19] Matt Bailey: Absolutely. And it’s, it’s funny because I use language, “language” language, when I teach. I’m trying to think of the best way to put it.

[00:23:30] Norah Jones: Tell me about that “language” language here, Matt. Tell me about it.

[00:23:33] Matt Bailey: Well, I, I, yeah it’s, well, when I teach about knowing a target audience, for example, and who, who are you trying to reach?

And I do a lot of work in search engines, search engine optimization, which by the way, you might be interested to know, uh, 2020, uh, search phrases starting with the word “why” increased dramatically.

[00:23:57] Norah Jones: Wow.

[00:23:58] Matt Bailey: People typing in “why,” and then the phrase into Google.

[00:24:02] Norah Jones: Well, good for them. Existential angst, should we say existential angst in 2020?

[00:24:07] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:24:08] Norah Jones: Is that what we were doing?

[00:24:08] Matt Bailey: I think that was a lot of it. A lot of it, and people had time to sit around and think, too.

[00:24:13] Norah Jones: Yes. Lots of time sometimes.

[00:24:16] Matt Bailey: Right. So I, I position this as, when I evaluate what people type into Google, it helps me understand not only what they want, but how they describe it. And I derive intent from that. When I know what they intend or what they’re describing, now, from a business standpoint, or from a marketing standpoint, I have to change my language.

I can’t position my product. I have to learn what’s important to my audience and speak their language so that I can be found when they search for it. That’s just the, the basis of online marketing. Uh, early days I would work with companies that, they had their own internal language. They had their own internal, what they call the product and what it would do.

And they would put that on their website. And it wouldn’t be found by anybody because people were just entering in and searching for what their perceived need was, what their problem was, or what they thought the product was. And if the two languages didn’t connect or weren’t the same, no one would be found.

So I use, like I said, the “language” language of telling them that, you need to speak your customer’s language. You need to know what language they’re speaking in needs, in perceptions, in problem solving. Because if you don’t speak that language, you’ll never meet them. You’re going to be off on the side, just shouting into the distance, your own language, and no one’s going to hear you. So I use that language a lot in my training.

[00:25:53] Norah Jones: How do you have people ask about prompt to find the language of those that you are trying to reach, so that you can have a true conversation and not just two monologues.

[00:26:10] Matt Bailey: It, I like to start with search data, to see what people were searching for, what problems they’re trying to solve, what distinguishing factors or intent that they are using. But then, from there, organize by intent, organize by buying cycle, try and identify some themes to the words people use.

The next stage is taking that and then going and interviewing customers, previous customers, or not even people who are customers, and get their perceptions. Basically, clarify my assumptions that I’ve made in that research. And so, now I want your opinions. I want your, your attitudes. Is my perception correct when I say this? Do you agree with that?

And so I’m reinforcing my research to directly, to get more of that emotional level response. I take that data back and now we’re refining it again, group it, analyze it, break it down.

Uh, so it’s that, it’s that mixture of, uh, quantitative/qualitative analysis and it’s a constant going back and forth. I’m deriving this information, now I want to double check it. And when I double check it, I do tend to learn more things. So in that way, I’m, I’m getting closer to customers.

I was working with one company and during lunchtime we went to the mall across the street. Prior to that, I made them develop questionnaires. And then I said, “Okay, we’re going across. We’re going to stop people in the mall. And you’re going to ask them your questions.” The looks of horror on their faces, because…

[00:27:55] Norah Jones: Oh my.

[00:27:55] Matt Bailey: …I think that’s probably the number one problem in marketing today is that people are not going directly to the customer to ask them questions.

They’re relying on external data, third-party data, research data, but rarely are they talking with the end customer to get a true sense of their value.

[00:28:19] Norah Jones: It’s a lot safer to play in your head, in the sandbox than it is to get out there and start walking the roads and talking to those who are truly engaged in the direction you’re planning on going.

[00:28:32] Matt Bailey: Absolutely.

[00:28:33] Norah Jones: You know, Matt, you’ve been through educational levels of all types. How do you see what you have learned as applying back into education? Of course, I’m talking to you as a language educator, so that would be my very first interest if I might, but just in general, your, the principles that you have learned, what do you see, what can you imagine in an educational setting that could be applied?

[00:29:01] Matt Bailey: Hmm, wow. So much of it can be applied, from hiring, from teaching adults, to what I would love to see in education. I mean, I think it’s easy as a previous employer to say, “I want students who can express themselves better through writing and through speaking.” Uh, those are two skills that I, when I talk to other employers, other agencies, it’s very difficult to find anymore because even in business, and this is starting to take hold and I’m so happy to see that, is that I’ll teach you the skills I want you to have, but the intangibles are your ability to communicate.

[00:30:00] And we call that the soft skills. And there is a trend right now to hiring soft skills. People that can communicate, that can capture people’s attention, that have excellent writing skills. Great. Because those are harder to teach. They’re harder to instill. And now when it comes to optimizing a website, I can teach you that because you have demonstrated capabilities of reaching a level of understanding, that it will be very easy for you to really integrate what I would call more tactical, uh, discipline related content.

That’s the trend that’s happening right now in business, and I wish that would filter into the schools, is not just these facts and figures. That’s not going to do it. It’s your ability to present. It’s your ability to persuade. Uh, it’s, it’s the more rhetorical approach that you had described of, “I’m asking you questions that helps you synthesize the information, which now enables you to ask better questions.” That’s what employers are begging for right now.

[00:30:57] Norah Jones: And it is so beautiful to hear that. One can preach to one’s own choir. Having you come in and say that so succinctly and beautifully, I’m planning on posting you everywhere I can, because to say to my students, as I did for years, it is the communication, but sometimes course students and their parents and administrators, historically speaking, I think it’s less so now, will, are afraid to believe that, are afraid to invest in that. And one of the things along with world language education that I did for years that I enjoyed thoroughly is there are, uh, as you know, verbal sports, if you will, including forensics, which despite its other use of the name of a really…

[00:31:53] Matt Bailey: Yes.

[00:31:55] Norah Jones: …icky medical stuff. Um, no, not, not icky, it’s wonderful. Is the spoken arts, and in particular I would coach extemporaneous speaking.

[00:32:05] Matt Bailey: Ah.

[00:32:06] Norah Jones: It was powerful to bring in students who are scared to death to say something and provide them over an academic year and beyond, obviously, because one can do this for multiple years, the opportunity to take a concept and to begin to be speak about it, to make some sense, to organize thoughts, to speak clearly, to choose the right word, that, and then a program that frankly I’d have to look again to see where it is. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, Matt, but I would certainly encourage anyone that is interested in this kind of experience for youth, and collegians even, because it’s all part of the disodyssey of the mind, that coaching in that provided an opportunity for students to begin to ask these exact questions, given something to accomplish.

All the rest of it was for students to ask questions and reflect and the coach to help, to give that space for that. That can provide a huge change in what you are looking for and what employers are looking for, what we need for clarity of thinking, but also for, as you said, beautifully said, your, can train other things. It’s the communication skills, written and spoken, and that has to be annually a huge emphasis cross-curricularly, so.

[00:33:39] Matt Bailey: Mhm.

[00:33:39] Norah Jones: That’s, that’s fascinating and very powerful and very encouraging for students who are still working. You don’t have to be a Picasso at it…

[00:33:47] Matt Bailey: No.

[00:33:47] Norah Jones: …when you’re in eighth grade, right? Just start. Okay?

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[00:35:27] Matt Bailey: Well, Norah, let me ask you, how do you instill curiosity, and curiosity that can find its form in a question?

[00:35:36] Norah Jones: What a great question. Oh man. I think one instills curiosity by first showing sincere interest in the individual as they are in front of you, not what you expect them to be, not what you’d like them to be, not what they’re supposed to be by the end of the school year, or by the end of this marketing year, but we’re stand in front of someone and say by our actions, “I am very interested in you and your story. What already excites you?” Because if you can, in my opinion, tap into the humanity, help the person understand that they are worthy. They are valued.

If you listen to them and they are able to start being vulnerable in front of you, because they will if you demonstrate acceptance, then that vulnerability will begin to lead inexorably to what still remains untapped in their lives that they care about, and then they’ll begin to ask the questions that they need to ask. Then they’ll begin to have curiosity because they feel safe. We have to feel safe and valued first before we can get there. I have in my workshops, a modified Maslow scale. I say, I’m a b, very little brain. I can only do three things at a time.

Survival first, then belonging, and only then competence. And I believe curiosity comes at the level of competence because we can trust that our curiosity might be satisfied until we know we’re safe, until we feel a connection and feel that, that we can trust, I don’t think we get there. Why would we?

[00:37:42] Matt Bailey: That answers a lot of questions and it reinforces a lot of what I’ve seen, because one of the, the benefits of what I do is I’m able to go to so many different companies. Uh, I think throughout, in a non-COVID year, I’m probably in about 30 to 40 companies. During COVID, now I’m doing virtual training. And it’s very interesting because someone will ask me how a training went. My answer now has morphed because I can tell the culture of the company by how the training goes. And, and what you said about being safe and valued, questions, concepts, freedom to speak, are so evident at companies that have an amazing work culture.

When there is a negative work culture, there are barely any questions. People are afraid to ask questions and you can see people start to ask something, but then stop, rephrase, and go safe. Uh, they’re not going to put themselves out there. They’re afraid of looking incompetent.

And culture, the culture of the company can absolutely squash someone’s ability to ask questions, or it can enable them to flourish with that, I love how you said that if they feel safe and valued, then curiosity is there. Without that, there’s fear, and you know, almost in some cases, a fear of reprisal, uh, it’s just so evident, especially when I’m there on site and I can watch what’s happening. Uh, it’s a little less in zoom, but I can still pick it up.

[00:39:32] Norah Jones: Yes. I’m sure you pick it up very well with your skillset. No question. And our vulnerabilities levels can be fairly easily crossed if you will. We don’t have to embarrass ourselves tremendously or feel completely crushed in order to want to avoid that pain. We don’t, we don’t have to touch a full speed, electric wire. We just don’t want to be, be near something that stings.

[00:40:00] And that’s absolutely critical to making sure that people indeed feel that they have hope in their participation. I, you, with your background will almost certainly know who it is that said this quote, if I’ve got it anywhere near to its original, but, “You should be very wary when your best people in your company fall silent.”

[00:40:30] Matt Bailey: That is, yeah, that’s powerful. And yeah, unfortunately it’s something that I have seen a lot of times, uh, we, we used to call this the, the “hippo”, uh, the highest income producing person’s opinion.

[00:40:43] Norah Jones: I like that.

[00:40:45] Matt Bailey: That squashes all conversation.

[00:40:50] Norah Jones: Isn’t that true? Uh, yes. I think many of the listeners will be able to imagine something right now. Yes, I think that’s very nice image you just provided, Matt.

[00:41:01] Matt Bailey: Yep. That, that’s, that’s what it comes down to it. So that is so key. I would not have put curiosity in that organized response that you gave, but it makes so much sense. Um, because in order to be curious, you have to have that, that safety, that ability, the, the, I would say almost the permission to be curious.

[00:41:24] Norah Jones: Absolutely.

[00:41:25] Matt Bailey: So the next step would be formulating a question. So I have the curiosity. How do I formulate a good question?

[00:41:34] Norah Jones: Oh my goodness. Boy, you have put such pressure on me. I love it. Well, I do think that we together have reiterated some of the things that we would avoid. For example, a kind of a question where there can only be a factual answer. Those have their place. But formulating a good question provides an option for the “why” and the imagine start.

[00:42:04] Matt Bailey: Hmm.

[00:42:05] Norah Jones: I think a good question does not necessarily come out in the question format right away. Imagine that you are an indigenous person who is seeing a ship come over the waters, ship like you’ve never seen before. And you can see that there look like there are figures on board the ship. When these figures land on your shore, how will you respond, and why? What do you already know of responses that have happened in history?

[00:42:48] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:42:48] Norah Jones: You can see I’m going to be a social studies teacher here for just a second. In what ways do you find these to reflect what you can imagine happening in your life? What are some of the ways in which these actions, this landing on your shores has happened in your life? What were your reactions? How do they relate to others?

There’s kind of an ongoing and each one of these, of course, is done after separation of time and part of what that implies, what I just did with that list, by the way, Matt, as evocative or non-evocative, as you may have found it, is that when the students, when adults begin to answer questions, I believe that the best thing that happens is that the person that asked the original question evokes a question next based on the response heard, rather than on something planned. That questioning, I believe at its best is open-ended response that evokes the experience of the person asked, evokes their responses, uh, as in, their responses to the experience in their past.

Evokes their emotions, evokes their beliefs, evokes their opinions, yes. But opinions based on experiences and that when they begin to answer, then I feel that the strongest questions come then not from an array, preplanned, sort of like I just did, but from then that dialogue that happens, and this can happen in a classroom because some of the most effective questioners, especially when trained, and they usually are trained this way more by their emotions than by us as instructors, the others that are in the classroom, the others that are in the meeting when given permission to think of open-ended questions will be the best questioners for follow-up, because they’ll be listening then not just with my response, but with their responses, with their histories.

And they’ll continue to ask questions and then, frankly, whether you, Matt, as a leader or I, as a teacher, whatever our roles might be, that we are able to help to train those questions. So if a person says, “Well, were you happy?” Perhaps we can open up that question to say, “What were some of the emotions that you had?” And train all the rest of the people in the room to be questioners, uh, exponentially more effective than just guiding it ourselves.

So those two aspects, well, three aspects, I suppose, uh open-endedness which we repeat, uh, listening carefully so as to not necessarily have a litany from which we read, and then inviting and training others to be our co-questioners in the same approach, I think exponentially grows the ability to have excellent, insightful answers that have meaning for people.

[00:46:10] Matt Bailey: Wow. Yeah. So it was great. Very, very good. It, it causes me to, to think of the Socratic approach. So in college I took a number of courses on persuasion, marketing, and one thing I loved is my professor used Aristotle’s rhetoric. And that, I think is what started a lot of appreciation for the classical.

But then when I started reading some of Socrates and some of the dialogues there, what fascinated me was his ability to come up with really good questions. Uh, and, and…

[00:46:49] Norah Jones: Yes.

[00:46:49] Matt Bailey: …what the, when I first started reading, what hit me the hardest was, “I don’t think I would’ve asked that.” You know, rather than, you know, this is supposed to be the wisest man ever. He’s not answering anything.

[00:47:03] Norah Jones: He’s not answering anything.

[00:47:05] Matt Bailey: He’s not giving any answers. But the ability to dissect the question that was given to him, to properly understand the motivation of the question, the terms of the question, and it really gets down at a lot of times, and I get into this in the business realm. “What do you mean by…?” Fill in the blank. That I have learned more and more is so critical.

Give you a business example, I, uh, one of my classes I taught the other day we were talking, and someone was saying that well, my job is to provide good leads for the business. And I said, “Okay, let’s stop here.” Because now all of a sudden, my, my Socratic, you know, it’s all kicking I’m like, “What do you mean by good?” And, and, and, you know, now…

[00:47:54] Norah Jones: Yes.

[00:47:55] Matt Bailey: …Is it good? Are they defining good by “You got a lot of leads,” so by the amount of leads? Do you find good by the quality, they’re high quality, meaning you don’t have to work them that hard? They’re going to turn into sales. Or are they defining good by the cost that it took for you to generate those? And immediately I was so happy because they got it.

They understood immediately what I was going for. And all of a sudden, now they realized this is why my reporting is being missed because I’m reporting on aspects that are not important to them. I’m filling up this report, and she said, “I am, he is most concerned about cost. And so my reports should focus on cost.”

And I’m like, “Yes, yes, she’s got it.” Um…

[00:48:46] Norah Jones: Wow.

[00:48:47] Matt Bailey: …but as…

[00:48:48] Norah Jones: She’s got it, brilliant.

[00:48:49] Matt Bailey: …but what it really was, was let’s pull this adjective apart. What do you mean by good? And just by defining that, it transformed her understanding now of, “How do I report what I’m looking at?” How to answer the right question.

[00:49:04] Norah Jones: I love that story, and, and I was, one of my podcast guests is a professional philosopher…

[00:49:10] Matt Bailey: Oh.

[00:49:11] Norah Jones: …for whom Socrates was the game changer of her life. And, uh, perhaps I should be careful as I admit this in front of businesses, right? But the reason that at least she spoke of why Socrates was, uh, had to drink himself to death if you will, was because unlike others, other philosophers, he believed in exactly that process that you just experienced, namely, everyone is an expert, or there is no expert per se.

[00:50:00] That each of us has an ability to contribute. And that goes against the grain of hierarchical, uh, societies of all kinds, not just ancient, but modern, not just philosophical, but financial. And I think that that’s an interesting thing to know that Socrates had those questions, that dialectic going on in order to be able to demonstrate that, and all the expertise really needed was right there in that wonderful question that you asked that evoked all of the answers that were needed to solve that problem. That’s great, Matt.

[00:50:33] Matt Bailey: Well, I, it wasn’t me. I’m just, I am just, I’ve been in the same boat, you know?

[00:50:39] Norah Jones: Yes.

[00:50:40] Matt Bailey: Uh, and, and now I feel like now a good part of my career, I’m finally understanding why these misunderstandings happen, why people spend weeks putting together a presentation that nobody cares about.

[00:50:54] Norah Jones: Nobody cares, yes.

[00:50:55] Matt Bailey: And it’s always driven me up a wall that, that has happened. And now I feel like I’m just starting to figure this out that we’re, because I didn’t ask the right question, I’m not delivering the right information. And because my stakeholder or my manager isn’t clearly defining, “What is it you’re looking for, what problem you’re trying to solve?” But what I’ve seen just over the past decades is just this lack of good questions, or a lack of questions at all.

[00:51:24] Norah Jones: Well, and questions, again, we go back to the issue of vulnerability and of survival and of our sense of competence. And it will be interesting to see with the emotional, psychological effects of the pandemic with some of the ways that people have both connected, but also been separated up over this time, will our sense of vulnerability be expanded, that we recognize that everybody has been in the midst of vulnerability, and so we’ll ask each other questions? We will listen to each other’s answers? We will follow each other down our paths and see where they head for a while and see if we want to walk down them and help each other along the way? Or will we find that we are more frightened? That we ask fewer “why” questions, fewer questions that evoke the curiosity, because we are recuperating emotionally ourselves?

I’m not sure which direction we will find that we’re in probably a little bit of both, but, uh, we will need each other and we will need to ask each other questions and listen to each other’s answers and follow through more, I think, than ever.

[00:52:47] Matt Bailey: That is beautiful. Well-stated and beautiful. I love that. Love that. That is a great, great summary. Uh, Norah, I’ve got one other question.

[00:52:57] Norah Jones: Alright.

[00:52:58] Matt Bailey: Um, and now this is, I’m switching gears on you here, uh, because as, as a business educator, adult educator, why do I hate multiple choice questions so much?

[00:53:12] Norah Jones: Well, with your mind, that’s way too limiting. There are no three choice answers, by golly, I don’t think. Seriously, you don’t like multiple choice questions, right?

[00:53:23] Matt Bailey: Well, it, it was one of the things, so when I took, I finished my master’s degree last year in, uh, instructional design. And at the end of every unit, I had to take a 50-question multiple choice test. And I, I rarely perform well on those. And it was explained to me because I’m an adult with life experience, it makes it more difficult because I see everything as, it’s not black and white.

But at the same time, I feel like it didn’t really capture what I understood. And so I was working with a, another education company and their challenge to me was “What do you think is a good assessment of making sure someone understood something?”

And I said it would be a final essay with one word, “why.”

[00:54:16] Norah Jones: There you go, exactly.

[00:54:18] Matt Bailey: Because…

[00:54:18] Norah Jones: Exactly.

[00:54:19] Matt Bailey: I just felt like the multiple choice doesn’t really show evidence that I learned. It shows evidence that I memorized a fact and I have businesses all the time that want evidence that people learned and what they default to is a multiple-choice test. Everyone defaults to that.

[00:54:37] Norah Jones: Well, learning as factoids, not only that, but there’s a presumption that those multiple-choice questions are well written, that they include the sentence structure and the information needed in order to choose. And I would say if I, well, I may, by golly. That’s why I’m over here I guess, with a microphone is that, does multiple choice questions, which are unambiguous, are factoids that are probably best left to just experiental use, and if that is the way that one would end a very important course, that it is, uh, short changing itself, shall I say. That longer sentences always run the risk of being written in such a way as to be ambiguous.

Well, it could be A or B depending on whether, and then you, Matt and others that have understood the material can run all sorts of rabbit trails. And I will say that the internationally known assessments, which are most applicable then to student young people, getting into schools all over the world, are open-ended, “why” type of examinations and those that are not designed for the broadest use make more use of multiple choice and we’ll let that just float in the air for a while.

And then I will mention what I consider to be the finest examination I ever had, which was for my master’s degree, which is in linguistics basically. And I loved my professor who was a jolly, wonderful man. So lively. We all just enjoyed everything cause it was very all about the class all around. And for the exam, he called me in separately. And when I came into his room, his office, he was sitting behind his desk, which was quite large, no papers sitting, looking at me, “Please sit down.” I sat down and he said, “Why am I giving you an examination like this?” and he didn’t hand me anything. He was just, he asked me to sit down.

[00:57:02] Matt Bailey: Oh, wow.

[00:57:03] Norah Jones: And I said, “Well, you have divided yourself from me and you are using more still…” and I went into the meta-linguistic and linguistic aspects of what he was doing. And as I talked, he got happier and happier and happier. My exam was to apply the aspects of understanding what linguistic and meta-linguistic behaviors looked like.

It was fascinating, and I’m sure hardly ever repeated in education, but it was great. And certainly, inspired me to provide examinations that were open-ended to my students visually based and experiential. And, uh, so I’m going to concur, your multiple choice, uh, not phobia cause you, you handle it. But, uh, the distaste for multiple choice is, I think well-placed.

There are times for everything, but overuse of multiple choice I think is perfectly possible. And certainly, from the point of view of getting down to the kinds of things we love to do as adults, uh, not as rich as it could be, shall we say.

[00:58:18] Matt Bailey: Oh, that’s wonderful. Wonderful. Because like you said, defending what you knew in front of your professor, I think not only did it inspire and excite you, I mean, you remember that, uh, that is a full-on demonstration of what you’ve learned and being able to do that one-on-one, I mean, to me that reinforced the power of personalization of small group instruction of that, there needs to be that mentor, that, that teacher is a coach. Not, it kind of reinforces what I have always thought about, especially online education is, there is a place for the MOOC, there is a place for at scale, but when you want some, to truly show or demonstrate expertise, you can’t do that at scale.

I really don’t see how you can do that. So, while there’s a lot of online opportunities in that realm, where are you going to get that feedback? Where are you going to get that, not only the ability to demonstrate, but the feedback and the coaching that only someone who’s watched you develop can provide?

[00:59:38] Norah Jones: Absolutely right. And I appreciate that you used the word coach, because if we could in fact consider teaching to be mostly coaching, that would be healthier.

[00:59:48] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:59:48] Norah Jones: Let’s come back to what you were expressing about the, the nature of, uh, curiosity and the nature of learning here in this, that professor was actually the third, if you will, in a line of professors, because I had a religion professor that I respected tremendously.

[01:00:00] He had a type of an examination that was like, fill in the blank. I don’t know if he actually used any multiple choice, mind you, he wasn’t that kind of professor. But still, more should we say, discrete points, informational. And he called me to his office and invited me to not take that exam, but to take one that was based on an open-ended single question. As a person who grew up in an education system where I indeed wanted to perform and perform well, called a person that was always trying to get an A, I turned him down and the look in his eye, I never forgot.

I took his regular exam, but I probably learned more about myself that day by taking that regular exam, and then going and thinking about what he had asked me to do that I turned him down about, there was a vocabulary word that he used that I felt a little weak on and it made me panic. I spent time studying that word, not because I was going to see him again, not because he was going to ask me that question ever again, but because I was mortified that there was an opportunity for me to have reached out and tried something with a coach and I turned him down.

So when I think about in our classrooms, in your work, that if a person is not yet ready, that we nevertheless through our coaching, through the opportunities that we provide, may not be in front of us, the next person down the road might inherit this person that has been in front of us and has recognized that there was a freedom that was offered there through an open-ended question, through an engagement with curiosity, through a real entry into what you’re talking about, Matt, what you’re solving, what the businesses need, for my education need, that there may be somebody in that room that failed to act in front of you, but by watching you and learning from you and seeing your coaching and your patience and your ongoing vulnerability yourself, is ready for the next time that it comes up, the seed is planted. I believe in that 100%.

[01:02:50] Matt Bailey: Uh, you know, it, it reminds me that that was actually a, I think, a major point in, trying to think it was, um, a book called “Reclaiming Conversations.”

[01:03:03] Norah Jones: Hmm.

[01:03:03] Matt Bailey: And I am trying to think, she is a professor at MIT. Um, oh, it, it’s escaping me right now. Um, but she did an analysis of online learning and MOOCs and showing the completion rates being very, very low and then analyzing what made it different to the classroom experience. And the biggest point that she made, and it was surprising, but you just nailed it. The biggest difference was watching the professor of the course take questions and how they handled, responded, thought, and wrestled with them and then answered. So it wasn’t so much the answer itself, but it was the student witnessing how the professor, because in a text or a video format, there’s, you brought this up earlier.

One of the first things you brought up. The time. They witnessed the professor formulating the response, and in doing so it motivated them that, “I can do this.” And she points to this as a, an issue with technology. That the technology forces an immediate answer. And when we, even on a discussion board, if you read a discussion board, you’re seeing things as they exist now, not in the time it took for people to formulate posts, respond, that’s the discussion board. That’s 10 years ago. Now we’re pushing into, you know, immediate, uh, conversations, responses, emails. Um, that’s one of the big things I, I tell people is, just because you receive an email does not mean you have to respond the same moment.

[01:04:49] Norah Jones: Amen, brother. Amen.

[01:04:51] Matt Bailey: Email means you have time to formulate a response. Uh, business communication needs to slow down. Um, but that was fascinating to me because I would never have guessed that as a, a major factor affecting education, and yet you just brought that right out. This, this watching the coach, the instructor, the professor, as they consider and formulate the answer as being such a key part of the learning experience, uh, and, and the question asking experience.

[01:05:23] Norah Jones: You’ve reiterated the importance of the relationship. There can be no communication without relationship. This, we go back to that storytelling aspect, the part that everybody has a story to contribute, that they learn how to tell their story and learn how to contribute stories and questions by observing.

And so that coaching is ongoing. I really appreciate your sharing that, uh, book, uh, that concept with me right back. I just, I love that because it is, human language that whether it’s the culture of the classroom, the culture of business, the cultures of communities, of different ethnicities, of different nationalities, of different experiences, all of our languages and cultures are a matter of listening, to be able to ask questions, to be able to receive first responses, and then follow up because of the listening and the opening.

That’s also how we get to folks that by the time that they’re interested in becoming employed, have a skillset in speaking and writing, because they’ve been practicing this as human beings purposefully, not just for academic, but because they’re human, for years.

[01:06:45] Matt Bailey: Wonderful. Absolutely. That would, uh, I think it would make a lot of hiring managers very happy to see students like that.

Well, Norah, this has been such an amazing conversation. I have thoroughly enjoyed our time together recording this, and, uh, I cannot wait to get this published and for the listeners to hear this. Where can people find you, Norah? They want to know a little bit more about who you are and what you do.

[01:07:11] Norah Jones: Well, thank you, Matt, for asking that. I can be found, my website is And, uh, there also can be found the, my blogs and postings of my podcasts with information about my guests. Again, my podcast is “It’s About Language” with Norah Jones, and it’s found on all the traditional podcast channels. It’s also in transcription form, so that those who would prefer to read or who cannot hear, can access it. And that’s the very best way to find me, also LinkedIn. So I invite your listeners absolutely to connect up with me any way they can. I would be a great joy.

[01:07:54] Matt Bailey: Fantastic. And I’ll have all of that in the show notes.

And listener, thank you for joining us. I hope this has been a great conversation that’ll challenge you to ask better questions. Thanks again for joining us on the Endless Coffee Cup.

Featured Guest:

Norah Jones

Norah Jones

Educator, Linguist

LinkedIn profile: Norah Jones | LinkedIn

Website: Fluency Consulting

Podcast: It’s About Language

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