How to Ask Questions that Open Up Communication
by Gary and Joy Lundberg
One of the great problems in family relationships is the lack of communication. Unfortunately, most of us don’t grow up knowing how to effectively talk to people. We automatically follow the pattern set by our parents, just like they did. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s not, but we seem to be stuck with it until we learn differently. Many elements constitute effective communication. In this article we’ll focus on the art of asking questions.
Good questions allow people to communicate with mutual understanding. Poor questions are offensive, create a defensive attitude, and shut down the interchange of ideas and solutions with those you love. So how does one learn to ask good questions?
First, consider your intent. Are you truly seeking to understand the other person? Are you seeking information you don’t have? Are you trying to prove your point by using “Gotcha” questions? Are you trying to give the other person some hidden message with the question? Your intent, which shows in your eyes, voice inflection, and body posture, will expose you well before your words do.
Second, look at the type of question you are asking because it will give you clues as to your intent. “Why” questions such as “Why did you come home so late?” are often indirect ways of saying “Defend yourself.” Anyway, “why” questions are often pointless. For example, “Why did you spill your milk?” This question amuses us now, but it didn’t when we had children spilling milk. Maybe you could see the ridiculousness of it if your five-year-old looked up at you and answered, “Oh, I spilled it because I wanted to see how the milk would run all over the table.” The best proof of the usual negative effect of “why” questions is found in the typical answers such questions generate: “Cuz,” “I don’t know,” or a shrug of the shoulders. You’ll notice that “why” questions are usually coupled with the word “you” which results in focusing on the individual rather the event or happening.
No Answers in the Questions
Another type of problem question is the question that contains the answer. “You’re feeling mad, aren’t you?” “You really don’t believe what you’re saying, do you?” “You agree with me, don’t you?” or when your spouse speaks for both of you and says, “That’s how we feel, isn’t it, dear?”
When dealing with couples where either the husband or wife does this, the other mate often thinks, “There is no reason to answer because he really doesn’t want to know. His mind is already made up and he doesn’t want my opinion. All he wants is for me to say what he wants to hear. ” A child’s response to such questions is much the same. It’s a go-nowhere kind of conversation.
For example, let’s say your twelve-year-old son comes home from school looking like a whipped pup. You ask what’s wrong. He mopes around awhile and then it finally comes out, “I failed that math test.” You knew he was going to have the test and the night before had reminded him several times to study, but he just kept putting it off, playing his video game instead. A litany of questions you’d like to ask flash through your mind: “Didn’t I tell you you’d fail if you didn’t study?” “Now do you see why it’s important to study?” Or you might take a gentler approach and say, “Don’t you think you would have done better if you had studied?”
None of these work. They’re all demeaning. The only thing they do is convince your son that he’s stupid, and he definitely doesn’t need anymore convincing of that; his test grade has just made him certain of it. So what kind of question do you ask? Remember, not one with the answer in it. Before you ask any question, do a little validating-walk with him emotionally without trying to fix anything. Put yourself in his shoes. Have you ever failed at anything? It’s a rotten feeling. Give him a little hug and say something like, “It’s an awful feeling to fail a test. I know, son, I’ve failed before myself.” He will immediately be filled with unexplainable love for you. Let him share his disappointment, then ask, “What do you think will work next time?” Not “Don’t you think you’ll do better next time if you study?” That question has the answer in it. You might instead ask, “What do you think will work next time, son?” If he says, “I don’t know,” just say, “I’ll bet you’ll figure something out. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.” That shows trust and confidence. You can bet he’s thinking, I’m going to study next time. However, if you say it, he’ll resist doing it.
Questions that are the easiest to answer usually start with: how, what, when where, do, and is. For example “What happened that made you so late?” “What caused the milk to be spilled?” “How do you feel?” “Do you agree with me?” “What’s your opinion?” The intent of these questions is to find out information or to understand the other person better.
This type of questioning allows you, the listener, to follow people to the level that allows them to process their feelings adequately, without trying to change their direction. Keep in mind that you do not have to change your own values, opinions, or beliefs when walking emotionally with another person and, ideally, you won’t be trying to change theirs either. Change will happen within themselves when they have the opportunity to be thoroughly listened to without having to defend anything. Then they can think through their responses, knowing that what they are saying is being understood by you.
Validation Is the Key
Effective questioning, used with validation (walking emotionally with someone without trying to change his or her direction) can lead others to be their own best problem solvers. A mother called us to let us know how effective the validation and questioning process worked with her seven-year-old daughter. Here’s her story:
My daughter, Maddie, came home from school crying. “My friends won’t play with me any more,” she said. “They started a club and won’t let me be in it, so I can’t play with them at recess now.”
I was so upset at them for treating my little girl this way that I was about ready to say, “Well, you don’t need friends like that, so you just go find some nice girls to play with.” The next thing on the tip of my tongue was, “That’s terrible! I’m going to call their mothers!” Because I had just read your book I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better, I restrained myself and instead validated her feelings by saying, “That would hurt, Maddie.”
She said, “Oh, Mommy, it really does hurt.” I listened as she poured out her feelings. Then I asked the validating question, which was so hard to do because I knew she didn’t know what to do-she’s only seven years old and she had come to me for help, hadn’t she? I restrained myself again and asked the question, “What are you going to do, honey?”
I was blown away by the wisdom of her answer. She said, “I know what to do. I’m going to invite them over to our house to play, one girl at a time, and they will see that I’m a fun girl and they’ll want me in their club.”
Maddie followed through and she started with the ring leader. She did everything to make it a fun visit, but the girl was rude, selfish and terribly unkind. When the hour was over she left. I stayed out of it and just watched from a distance. When the girl was gone I said, ‘Well, what do you think?’
“Maddie said, ‘Mom, she was awful. I don’t want her for a friend.’
“She invited another girl from the group over and they played and had a wonderful time. Now they’re best friends and the problem is solved.”
It’s an amazing thing to discover the wisdom that comes from within the person with the problem, even a child, when given the chance. Wise men of old knew how this worked. In Proverbs 9:12 we read, “If thou be wise, be wise for thyself.” It helps to keep in mind that the solution to a problem lies within the person who has the problem. By using the right questions we can help them discover the solutions. In the process, true communication happens and feelings of love and respect grow by leaps and bounds.
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