Thinking Out Loud

Which Questions Work?

We are constantly asking questions of one another. It’s so natural a part of human interaction, we hardly realize it. We need information to understand, so we ask. But certain kinds of questions elicit better responses than others. I’ve taken to asking people more directly which kinds of questions work best for them.

Here’s an example involving a brother and sister. Their parents are going through a divorce, and while they find it easy to talk to each other about their parents, (“Boy, Dad sure seems sad all the time” or “I wish Mom would just get on with her life.”), it’s hard for them to talk directly about their own emotional struggles. So, I began by asking each child these questions:

  • Do you like to be asked about how you are feeling, or do you prefer being asked about what you are going through?
  • Is it better to give you a choice: Would you like to talk about this now or later?
  • Is it better for me to just listen or would you rather hear what I think, too?
  • Is there something you’re afraid I’m going to think about you, if you tell me what’s going on?

These types of questions set the stage. They are about the process of the communication, not the content. This creates a transition that makes getting into the discussion easier. These questions also imply that we are going to have a discussion about what’s important. In a way they are suggestive of what’s to come. This, too, helps massage the process.

With adults, this approach can be equally helpful and gets to the heart of communication styles. For example, with the first question above: “Do you like to be asked about how you are feeling, or do you prefer being asked about what you are going through?” Try asking your partner this question or some variation: “Are you more comfortable if I ask you what you’re going through or if I ask what this means to you?”

We all have preferences (quirks, too) that really are worth accounting for. I’ve heard so many people respond strongly to these types of questions when asked their preference. Some will say emphatically, “I like being asked how I’m feeling, but I can’t stand being asked what I’m going through.” Yet, others will respond equally emphatically in the opposite direction. We are all different and it is worth finding out which questions encourage or discourage more open communication.

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