Asking Better Questions: 101
Across America, the following conversation occurs approximately 54 seconds after the driver’s seatbelt is fastened in most cars of parents who have just picked up their child from school:
(what he/she says) “How was your day, honey?”
(what he/she means) “I care about you and want to share in your life.”
(what he/she says) “Fine.”
(what he/she means) “Here comes the daily interrogation.”
(what he/she says) “What work did you do today?”
(what he/she means) “We are spending a bucket of money sending you to school and we want to know what we are getting for our dollars!”
(what he/she says) “Polishing.”
(what he/she means) “How can I possibly explain to Mom/Dad what a trinomial cube is? And besides, I’m only 3 years old and can’t even remember the name trinomial cube myself! So I’ll say something we both can understand. Yeah. Polishing is simple enough for them.”
(what he/she says) “Surely you did something more than polishing! What else did you do?
(what he/she means) “I’m trying to establish a relationship with my child by showing interest in his/her day. And besides, I still want to know what we are getting for our dollars.”
(what he/she says) “Nope. That’s all.”
(what he/she means) “I’ve worked hard all day, I want to stop thinking about it, and I can’t explain it to you anyway. So please just let me rest!”
...and they both get frustrated.
Sound familiar? By changing a few words, you may recognize the same scene with an older child, with a teenager, and often with a spouse.
The problem? We’re asking the wrong questions! Sometime in our distant past we must have passed Interrogation 101 with flying colors. But we never really learned how to communicate effectively.
So here’s a primer to begin turning around these dead end “conversations.”
The opening disclaimer: None of this is absolute. There are times and places when “bad” questions are really very good, and when “good” questions can be deadly. Those exceptions are for the graduate level students who have mastered 101, 102, 103, and probably even 104. So try to just go with the flow for the moment.
Stand with your arms stretched straight out to your sides. Imagine that the horizontal line you are creating with your arms is a time line. The trunk of your body represents the present moment. Your left arm represents the past, with your finger tips as far back as you can remember. Your right arm is the future.
Some questions invite you to look to the past. The past contains 3 things:
Questions that point to the past cause you to access your left brain; the logical, sequential, defensive side.
Other questions point to the future. The future contains:
Questions that point to the future cause you to access your right brain; the creative, intuitive side.
In general (no absolutes, remember?), questions that turn your head to the left (the past) are bad questions. Questions that turn your head to the right (the future) are better questions.
Look over the conversation above. Do you see the rapid-fire delivery of left seeking missiles? Each of the questions is designed to look to the past, to give an accounting of history. While there is nothing at all wrong with history, there is one serious problem with focusing on it: we have no rewind buttons! Nothing we do can change it. So we often end up feeling guilty about it and blaming others for what happened. There is nothing particularly effective about the whole process. Past-oriented questions can often be recognized by their opening word. “Why...?” is usually a warning signal that a bad question is about to pop out, like, “Why did you do that?” Unless we are attempting to discover scientific principles, “Why...?” is forcing the other party into guilt and blame.
Imagine what might happen if we simply asked different questions---questions that invited the other party to access right brain functions (this sentence, by the way, just invited you to access your right brain). How might we ask things differently next time to elicit creative, problem solving responses (ooops, there’s another right brain question)
Perhaps we could ask the child what would be exciting for him to work on tomorrow. We might still get “Polishing” from the three year old who can’t explain the trinomial cube to us. But we might be surprised. Or we might ask what choices she might make next time to create an exciting day for herself. Or we could let go of the school report completely and ask something like, “What would make this a terrific evening for you?” “How shall we make that happen?” (Imagine how great you would feel if someone asked you that!) Now the child is effectively creating his own future and solving her own problems. That’s powerful!
Here’s a quick summary of Asking Better Questions 101. In general:
questions that turn our heads to the left (the past) and access our left brains are bad questions since we cannot change the past
questions that turn our heads to the right (the future) and access our right brains are better questions since they cause us to tap into our creativity and problem solving abilities, paving the way for more effective choices to come
One final thought: leave the interrogations to the crime solving experts. They really do no good in any relationship.