If you want to be in relationship with another person – really in relationship with your spouse, your child, your co-worker, your neighbor – you have to know things about them. You have to listen.
And to listen in a conversation, you have to ask the kinds of questions which allow true responses.
I will admit, friends, that this is something I had to teach myself to do.
For instance, rather than ask, “Did you have a good weekend?”, I learned to ask, “How was your weekend?”
Because when I ask if you had a good weekend, what I’m telling you what I want to hear. I want to hear it was a good weekend, dammit. And I have not left any room for you to reply, “It was a tough weekend. My kitchen ceiling caved in, my cat ran away and I broke my tooth when a baseball thrown by a major leaguer hit me in the mouth.”
To tell you the truth, for the sake of our friendship, I’d rather hear about that action-packed weekend than hear, “Fine.”
I’m less about superficial and more about real these days.
We need to come to terms with the fact that there’s a teeny bit of bullying going on when any of us ask a question that, in essence, tells the person exactly what kind of response we will accept. And we know being bullied feels cruddy – why would we, even subconsciously, do it to others?
Another thing: You also have to be present to ask good questions, which seems to be a problem facing so many of us. Being present means asking the question and waiting for the response, not asking a throwaway question that prompts a throwaway response.
Me (thinking about getting to my desk and getting to work): “Doing good?”
You (thinking about getting me out of your hair): “Yep, doing fine.”
This interchange doesn’t build anything, doesn’t grow anything, doesn’t lead to us understanding one another. It’s boring. Our relationship is not one iota deeper, truer or more real as a result of our interaction. Neither of us is really present to one another in that moment. Why, then, do we persist in doing it?
There’s another way to ask questions so you get good answers, and you can teach yourself how – it’s:
“What was it like?” rather than “Did you have a good time?”
“How is your mother?” rather than “Is your mom OK?”
“Where are you on the Framastan project?” rather than “You got the Framastan project done, didn’t you?”
“What’s your homework plan tonight?” rather than “You’re going to do your homework tonight, aren’t you?”
Let’s look at that last one a little deeper. The question implies that homework is always an iffy proposition and you know the kid won’t do it unless you’re constantly on them about it. You’re basically saying, with that question, “I don’t trust you, you loser.” Night after night after night of that sort of pressure – does it work to get the results you need? That the kid needs? Is it what any of us need?
Always ask an open-ended question that allows the answerer the freedom to answer however they’d like. With their truth.
You may not always like it or be prepared for the answer – but it’s precisely that kind of willingness to listen and openness to vulnerability that draws people closer together.
And, ultimately, that’s what we all want, isn’t it?