Blog | Intercultural Development | Centre For Excellence

Asking Responsible Questions

  • Asking Responsible Questions

The following blog post was written by Tahira Ebrahim, Centre Liaison Officer at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. Tahira recently planned and facilitated the VESL workshop The I in Diversity.

Since 2005, VESL (the Volunteer ESL Tutor Training Project) has supported the professional development of volunteer ELL tutors throughout the city of Calgary. The project is funded by Calgary Learns and is the collaborative effort of three Calgary ELL service providers with long standing volunteer programs: Bow Valley College, the Calgary Public Library, and the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. 

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a VESL workshop on understanding personal dynamics within diverse settings.  The session examined the role we see ourselves taking in engaging with diversity. The workshop offered strategies to question the assumptions we hold about ourselves and others. 

As part of the workshop, I provided a tip sheet for volunteer tutors on engaging with learners. I want to focus on one particular concept in this handout that focuses on asking responsible questions. This idea of responsible questions was new to me, yet the concept itself is something I have given a lot of thought to.  At times we may find ourselves in limbo when engaging with someone. We fear offending people around us by saying something incorrect, but at the same time are unsure of how to go about engaging in dialogue without offending. 

The first step to connection will almost always come in the form of a question. So how do we ask questions, without being insensitive? 

We start by asking responsible questions. A responsible question recognizes our inherent lack of understanding about a particular person, and it requires both humility and self-acceptance in not knowing. 

When asking a responsible question, ensure that you are asking someone a question that pertains to the individual and his/her experience. Avoid asking a question like “Why do you all….”, or “How come your community….”, as it implies that you require one person to speak on behalf of an identity or community that they may or may not associate with.  Asking someone to be the spokesperson of a community makes the assumption that everyone in the community is the same, which they are not. 

A responsible question avoids imbedding an assumption within the question. The question, “How come your community…” includes an assumption that everyone in a community engages in the same behavior or belief. Here are some ideas on how to pose the question to ensure that you are asking the person about something specific to them, rather than about an entire group of people:

  • “May I ask about….”
  • “If it’s okay, I would be really interest in learning more about…”
  • “May I ask about the significance of your…”

Asking permission to ask a question makes clear that you do not expect an answer. It acknowledges that the person does not have to provide an explanation, particularly when it comes to their identity. 

What are other ways that you have learned to ask responsible questions? What kind of questions have you asked that have opened up new connections and dialogue?

Visit the VESL Network to learn about upcoming VESL workshops and download information, handouts, and resources from over twenty previously held VESL workshops.