Asking difficult questions

Fran Bardsley, Communications Manager

‘You ask more questions than Ofsted’, muttered a bemused deputy headteacher as we came to the end of my tour of his school. I was visiting schools before making a decision about where to apply for my daughter. He was probably right, but as a former journalist, old habits die hard – and I still firmly believe that asking difficult questions is an essential skill we all need to master.

To give a personal example, when my grandfather was critically ill in hospital, my parents were despairing of getting the right information about his current condition, treatment and prognosis. After I spent five minutes with the nurse treating him we all had a clearer picture of how well he was doing and what we could do to help.

It’s particularly important, I think, for women and girls not to shy away from asking awkward questions. We are often discouraged from doing so – when women in the workplace, or the classroom, speak up, they are often labelled as bossy or abrasive whereas their male counterparts will be described as assertive and rewarded for exhibiting leadership traits. Put forward a good question or idea and you may find it being taken by a male in the room, rephrased and repackaged and, somehow, it becomes their piercing insight. Of course, this doesn’t happen all the time – and plenty will always give credit where it’s due – but it’s often enough that most of those reading this will have a similar experience. What this means is that it can leave young women more reluctant to put their head above the parapet for fear of being ignored, dismissed or plagiarised.

Naturally there are times and places to do this. In the classroom, and indeed in the workplace, there are certain expectations and conventions we need to follow. If your hand is constantly shooting up questioning the teacher in the room over minutiae, this is unlikely to endear you to them. Asking questions to put someone on the spot, to make them uncomfortable or to embarrass is never a smart play either. Using inside information (for example, knowledge of someone’s personal life) to provoke a ‘gotcha’ response, while it may yield short term rewards, is likely to come back to haunt you at a later date. And unless you are Jeremy Paxman, I would advise against asking the same question 12 times in a row. If, however, you have a genuine, relevant, question – even an awkward one, which may lead to a slightly complicated answer – then fire away.

One thing I learned as a journalist is that there are no stupid questions – far better to ask the question and risk sounding stupid for a moment than muddle through and be incorrect in print forever. If something doesn’t make sense, ask why. It may be that you don’t understand and all that’s required is clarification. Sometimes, you may find that whoever you are asking the question of doesn’t really understand either – and that’s a much more serious proposition. If we think back to the televised Covid briefings over the last few years, there were questions from both the press and members of the public. These questions often exposed things which were very much in the public interest. People won’t always volunteer information if they are embarrassed by it, or if mistakes have been made, or if it’s bad news. You have to prod until you get an honest answer and this is a critical part of the way in which we are able to hold people in authority to account.

Obviously, not everyone has the desire to be a journalist but I would tell the girls at Headington that having the courage and ability to pose uncomfortable questions is crucial whatever your planned career path. I was hugely impressed recently when our newly-elected Head Girl trio sat down with the Admissions and Marketing team following an open morning and asked a number of considered questions about why certain things were done in the way they were. It took a great deal of confidence and courage to do this – there’s a good reason they were chosen as our key school representatives! I would hope they would have similar self-confidence to do this externally, both as representatives of the School and on their own behalf.

Moving beyond Headington, the world of recruitment is an obvious area where skilled questioning techniques are beneficial. In job interviews, asking a few insightful questions as the potential employee will help you determine if the job is right for you. And, of course, if you are in the hiring seat, being able to ask the right questions is vital to make sure you employ the best person possible. Job interviews are just one scenario where any individual would benefit from being able to ask questions to authority. In the current economic climate, many employers are making difficult and controversial decisions involving restructuring and redundancy. You need to be able to pipe up and say, ‘Hang on, how exactly is this going to affect me? What are the actual benefits to the customer/client/business of doing this?’ If you are unable to ask such tricky questions – and in these kinds of circumstances, expect some hedging of bets and dissembling so be prepared to treat the information you are given with some caution – then it is very difficult for you to advocate for yourself and to understand the rationale behind certain actions.

In a more positive climate, asking the right kind of questions could win you promotions, clients, funding, you name it. If you’re asking a question nobody else is asking, suddenly, everyone is listening. And you just might get an answer. A PhD is essentially you searching for the answer to a question which is unique to you. Great questions could lead you to a career in research, to discovering new treatments and medicines, a new method of fuelling vehicles, a more environmentally-friendly way of disposing of waste. The sky is the limit – you just have to have a good question and be ready to ask it.

Just as we can’t all be journalists, we don’t all want be researchers or academics either so this may seem irrelevant. Leave the big questions to someone else! Except that we will all one day, however, sit in front of a doctor, a banker, a teacher, a mechanic or some other professional in a field in which we are not experienced, who is telling us complex information. We need to be able to question treatment options, financial advice, educational outcomes, costs. Trust the professionals – but make sure you have the questions to understand what risk and what gain is being proposed so you are able to make the right decisions. I am a big fan of experts, but I’d like to understand, in layman’s terms, why the experts are making a recommendation so I can go forward with all the information I need.

A few years ago, my daughter started going through the stage where every second word seemed to be the question ‘why?’. Her father groaned, questioning how long this seemingly interminable phase might last. Unfortunately, if it’s based on the example of her mother, perhaps never. I’ve still not stopped asking questions. Sometimes I don’t ask them out loud – but I seek the answer none the less. It’s important to know that doing so won’t always make you popular but it will make you better informed and put you in a much stronger position to make the right choices. It’s also important to know that people don’t always have all the answers and in many circumstances, that’s okay too. You will, however, learn a great deal about someone based on how they answer a question. I personally always give a great deal of credit to those who put their hands up and say I don’t know – provided they have a decent plan on how they are eventually going to answer said question. There are exceptions of course – if they are the person in charge of the area to which the question refers and they absolutely should know the answer to that question, then it’s a major red flag.

When I walk around the classrooms in Headington, I see plenty of hands raised to ask and answer questions (it’s a delight to be in a school where curiosity is encouraged and rewarded) but I also see those questions being posed in all kinds of other ways: in our diversity, boarding and eco committees, in the prefect body and student leaders, in student run clubs and activities and by our form captains and heads of year.

Becoming a skilled and adept questioner is a major advantage to all of us not just in our education and careers but in life more generally. Now more than ever, we need to teach the girls in our care not to accept everything at face value, to question motivations and sources while treating professionals with the respect their experience and expertise demand. It can be a challenging line to tread but I have faith that, with the kind of encouragement they will get at Headington, even the most reticent will get there. And in the long run, we may all benefit from it. Here’s to difficult questions.