Finding the Treasure in Every Story – the Question After the Question

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I asked the sweet 80-year-old woman I was interviewing, “You said when you were a little girl, sometimes your father drank a bit too much. How did he act when that happened?” She answered, “He wasn’t normal when that happened.” I could have left it at that. But I asked, “What do you mean by ‘not normal’?” Her answer revealed an emotion that had been locked inside for decades. As soon as she finished her answer, she strangely seemed more relaxed, more open to any further questions I might ask.

 Whether it’s a tear that wells up in their eye, a fire that’s lit in the pit of their anger, or a smile emerging across their face, the source, the deep-within genesisof the emotion is likely not the answer to the question you’ve just asked. The unexpected treasure found within the emotion is exactly what sparks what they are feeling.

 Most people think my job as a life storyteller is simple. Just show up, ask some canned questions, listen to the answers, then rinse and repeat. That is the formula to capturing a history lesson found in one of my high school history books. Oh, to be sure, the lesson is there, but so is the boredom in trudging through it. 

 But just because a story is rooted in history does not mean it should follow the mundane textbook formula of only presenting facts.  A great, interesting story is not found in just the answers to the questions. It’s much deeper. It is hidden in the initial answer, or as I call it, the question after the question. 

 Don’t get me wrong, the answer to the first question is important. That’s the only way you’ll get the facts. And facts are important. Intently listening to the answer should spark at least one clarifying question. “When you say ‘_____’, what exactly do you mean by that?” Or, “Your answer seems to bring up some emotion inside you. What is going through your mind as you answer that question?”

 It reminds me of the many times I’ve asked a question that I thought would result in a non-emotional answer. As the answer is delivered, I notice a glistening in their eye and perhaps a tear formed. Seeing this unexpected result, I pause a bit longer than usual before asking, “I see that brigs forth an emotion within you. What are you feeling right now?” Asking this question after the question uncovers the deep feelings beneath the answer, and, thus, the hidden essence of the story originator.

 Think about it. Most people don’t care enough to ask that question after the question. It could be because of ignorance, fear or just being afraid of emotion. Regardless of the reason, remember this: When you do ask that question after the question, not only do you find that hidden treasure within the story, but you are also respected by the story originator as someone who really cares about them as a person. You will also see the body language of the story originator open up, inviting and welcoming the next question to come along. The most important benefit to you and to the ultimate listener/viewer of the story is the trust that is built between you and the story originator as a result. 

 Try asking the question after the question in the next conversation you have with someone you love. And when the treasure within the story is found, thank the person for the gift they’ve given you.