Article | 6 min read

Your 21st-century challenge: put away the technology and ask better questions

By Sarah
Stealey Reed

Last updated August 8, 2016

I’m told to put away my mobile, leave my laptop in its bag, and be prepared to spend the afternoon without technology. I’m here to learn, and if the course description is correct, I’m here to learn 100 things I never knew about myself.

Although I’m wet from my walk in the rain and painfully sleep-deprived and jet-lagged, the affable man and his polite demands intrigue me. Once upon a time I did all my learning without the aid of Google and I’m game again for this 21st-century challenge, if but for a few hours.

I’m soon to learn that the synopsis from London’s The School of Life doesn’t do author Tom Chatfield dear. Based on his Live This Book, the session feels less about the 100 things I didn’t know and more about the 1,000 questions I need to start asking. Now.

Live this life

Chatfield doesn’t want us to simply be Apple-free for the next three hours, he wants us to reclaim our time—now and after we walk back onto the London sidewalk. What does he expect us to do with this newfound space that we’re creating? It’s simple in theory, challenging in action; he wants us to give some non-multitasking, uninterrupted, face-out-of-our-phone time to people, passions, inspirations,

He wants us to give some non-multitasking, uninterrupted, face-out-of-our-phone time to people, passions, inspirations, and ideas that deserve it.

“It is more important than ever for us to give some undivided attention to the people we are about, to the things that really matter in our lives, and to ourselves,” Chatfield writes in the introduction to Live This Book.

The day, like the book, is broken into chapters. Likewise, the two are packed with an unsteady stream of consciousness—stories, quotes, improv, questions, and activities—all intended to inspire interactions and strengthen relationships.

Chatfield’s exercises range from the meditative to the physical to the thoughtful.

“Could you take one of these 21st-century challenges?” asks Chatfield. If yes, celebrate.

  1. Don’t touch your mobile phone or tablet for a whole day.

  2. Walk somewhere you usually drive or take transport to.

  3. Start a conversation with a complete stranger.

  4. Make a loaf of bread from scratch.

  5. Spend an evening at home without electricity.

Or, “Write with personal thanks to five people who have done or created something you admire or enjoy. This could be an author, musician, organization, artist, politician, anyone! Send a letter, email or card, and explain why you’re grateful.”

I find myself most drawn to the questions. Each of them begs, not just for an answer, but for a meaningful conversation.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

What everyday activity gives you energy or inspiration?

If you could do anything for one year, no strings attached, what would it be?

Ask me a question; I’ll tell you no lies

Chatfield explains that we tend to ask each other closed-ended questions because they are simple—both for the asker and the askee. We don’t have to be actively engaged in that type of conversation, and our inner monologues can still chatter away while we ‘listen’. On the contrary, open-ended questions allow us to “talk promiscuously” In other words, they are harder; they are harder to ask and harder to answer.

When faced with a difficult question, Chatfield cautions, we tend to default to our mental shortcuts. Instead of answering the intended question, we’ll respond to an associated one, an easier one, often without even noticing the substitution. Our mental shortcuts help us to be super-efficient, but they also make our conversations incredibly lazy.

Our mental shortcuts help us to be super-efficient, but they also make our conversations incredibly lazy.

“Engaging conversation is like good posture,” says Sarah Darmody, a faculty member with The School of Life in Australia and keynote speaker at Relate Live Sydney. “You can’t slouch and you can’t make lazy assumptions.” Darmody encourages using “adventurous openings” rather than “route chat” to kick-off conversations. Think “What prompted you to leave your last job?” or “How did you break a bone?” rather than “How was your weekend?” and “Was there traffic this morning?”

Tom’s chapters and my favorite questions

  • Looking forward – It’s easy to be wise after events, but how can we hope to be wise beforehand?

  • Looking around – What do you find to be the most beautiful building in your neighborhood?

  • Looking back – How would knowing you only had a couple of years left change your perspective?

  • Looking in – What would a perfect house look like?

  • Looking for inspiration – What five things most inspire a sense of creativity and possibility in you?

  • Looking to others – What one new thing would you advise me to start doing to improve my life?

  • Looking to make a difference – What do you think are the three most important political issues in your country at the moment?

  • Looking good – When, where, and with whom do you feel you’re at your best?

  • Looking again – Do you have any time-wasting habits that you wish you didn’t indulge quite so often?

  • Stopping looking – What worries rise to the surface of your mind when you relax?

The human Google machine

A challenge with technology, says Chatfield, is that it can offer up a paralyzingly vast array of options. Type anything into Google —”What book should I read?”—and your simple request is met with pages and pages of results (562,000,000 at last search). With so many choices, you either revert back to laziness and select one of the first few for efficiency, or you do nothing, as The Paradox of Choice stymies your ability to choose.

With the 21st-century challenge, you’re either stuck looking in a book (a book for a book) or asking a human. Go with the latter and try positioning the question as, “What’s one book that I should read?” By limiting the options, the responder has to exercise constraint, which helps focus creativity and inspiration. You’re likely to get a much more thoughtful and meaningful response.

And take the same care when you’re asked a question, encourages Chatfield. “Don’t just answer by rote. Share something that’s quite meaningful to you.

Questions. So many questions. My afternoon at The School of Life leaves me with more questions than answers, and I’m perfectly all right with that. With each question comes a better story, with each story a better conversation, and with each conversation a better relationship. Challenge accepted.

Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she’s not wandering the world, she’s a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.