How to ask a great question, according to celebrated podcast host Krista Tippett

“Questions elicit answers in their likeness.”
“Questions elicit answers in their likeness.”
Image: Chris Daniels
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Krista Tippett has interviewed hundreds of personalities on air in her 20 years as a broadcast journalist. On her popular podcast On Being, the 59-year-old US National Humanities Medal recipient has an acuity for orchestrating deeply satisfying conversations with a range of subjects—politicians, scientists, artists, theologians, and taxi drivers (“mystics in disguise,” she calls them). Part of Tippett’s appeal lies in how she manages to project a felt kinship between her interviewees, who are often several timezones away from her recording studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The secret to rich encounters, Tippett says, is knowing how to frame a good, generous question. It’s a skill that’s been diminished amid the combative tenor in American politics and social media, she observes. “A lot of things that presents itself as a question are actually tools or weapons to incite, or corner, to catch or at least entertain,” she said during a talk at Google’s headquarters last year. “I want to point out how powerful a form of words a question is. Questions elicit answers in their likeness; answers rise and fall to the questions they meet.”

What makes a good question? Tippett, who met with Quartz in New York this week, explains that it’s less about fulfilling the interviewer’s agenda and more about putting the subject at ease.

“I’ll start with a list of all the things that I’m interested in, but I realize that many of those questions fall away,” says Tippett, who exudes the precise warmth and liveliness in person that one might imagine listening to her radio programs. “What I get interested in are questions that will be interesting to them [the interviewee].”

But framing a pleasing question isn’t about flattering the subject’s ego or pandering to their politics, Tippett notes. It’s about deep preparation—getting to know a subject’s mindset by reading and reflecting on their writing, lectures, and interviews they’ve given.

This studious preparation is meant to set the stage for the subject to willingly shed their usual script. “If you ask a question that’s interesting to them, they’ll often start thinking out loud in real time. They’re excited and forget they’re being interviewed,” Tippett says. “Maybe they’ll even say something that they haven’t said before—and you have this moment of surprise and discovery.” It’s a tip that applies to any type of dialogue—conceivably even a job interview, in which a prospective employer, playing the role of the interviewer, might want to learn about a candidate’s sensibility beyond what’s listed on their résumé.

In On Being, Tippett’s Peabody-award winning program about human spirituality, Tippett often begins an interviewing by inquiring about her subject’s childhood and spiritual formation. In a 2018 interview with New Jersey senator and former presidential candidate Cory Booker, Tippett says, “I am curious about how you would begin to talk about the religious or spiritual background of your childhood, however you think of that.”

Booker rewards Tippett with telling anecdotes about his upbringing in northern New Jersey and speaks about politics as “manifesting love” and his own frailty—talking points that would perhaps normally be stricken from his political rhetoric.

“We’re taught that listening is being quiet and waiting for your turn to talk,” says Tippett. “I think questions are often very transactional, but the real adventure occurs if you muster curiosity.”

Tippett’s strategy is a counterpoint to formulaic line of questioning that shape so many conversations today—including professional interviews. Tell me about your greatest achievement and failure. Where do you want to be in five years?

These generic questions require no preparation for the interviewee, but, as Tippett predicts, they also often yield generic answers. Imagine how the quality of job interviews might improve if we reframed them as authentic conversations between humans.