Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What Kind of Question is That?

A question that has been on my mind lately is, "How can I become more effective at getting answers to my questions and providing relevant answers to other people's questions?"

Statements or Questions?
We are often met by questions that I would call pseudo questions. A pseudo question sounds like a question, but in reality is a statement. We often voice statements as questions, when we think that there might be a disagreement and we want to avoid conflict.

An example of this might be a mother asking her teenage son, "Don't you really think that you need a haircut?"

It sounds like a question, but it's not! The parent believes that her son needs a haircut, but the son likely doesn't believe the same thing.

Pseudo questions are also asked when people want to illustrate a point. When Teflon asked Paul "How many people do you know who mostly play low notes?" (see Generally Speaking ), it's my guess that Teflon was attempting to show Paul that he'd been speaking using generalizations and had no specifics. He wasn't actually interested in hearing Paul's detailed response. He probably didn't even anticipate a response.

Of course, I cannot know what Telfon’s intentions were, but that's my guess.

Yesterday, I asked the twelve-year-old Antonia, "When will you be done with the computer?"

Her answer was (referring to her brother), "He was at the computer for an hour!"

In this case, I finally got an answer to my original question by clarifying that it was OK for her to also be on the computer for an hour and then finding out how long she had been on the computer thus far. I have the feeling that Teflon would call her original answer a not-even-wrong answer.

Now, I didn't know the house rules specifying that each child was allowed thirty minutes on their preferred computer, but Antonia did. When she heard my question, she replied from within her context of knowing the thirty-minute limit. Knowing that her brother had violated the limit, she immediately launched a "not-fair" defense, rather than simply saying, "I'll be done in forty minutes."

In my training to become a mentor/ counselor they would say, "You are never more than two questions away from an "on" question: that is, a non-directive, non-judgmental and helpful question."

So we can usually get back on the road quickly, when we pose a question that doesn't turn out to be particularly useful.

Answering Pseudo Questions
How many times have you heard questions such as:
"Why are your clothes lying on the floor?"
"Didn't you say you would do the groceries on your way home?"
"I thought we were supposed to meet at 4:00?"
I don't think it's fair to call these questions! Think of the potential answers:

"My cloths are lying on the floor because I was too lazy to pick them up!"
"Yes I did say I would do the groceries, so I lied to you. I'm the kind of person who doesn't always keep my word!"
"Wow, you thought I would be on time?"
When we were trained with these kind of questions, we were also trained to look for hidden reasons behind them. Antonia suspected that my hidden agenda was to stop her from playing in ten minutes, so she provided an answer to address my supposed agenda, creating a non-answer to the question that I had posed.

Creating Context
In Winnie the Pooh, each chapter has a title that tells what is going to happen, such as, In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump. This way we know beforehand where the focus is going to be.

The same can be done with questions!

One way to ask a question that will be answered in a useful way is by stating our wants or intentions clearly before asking the actual question. For example, I might have said to Antonia, "I want to know which game I can play with your brother before he goes on the computer, so when can I expect you to be done?"

Creating a context for my question might have saved a lot of time with Antonia and would have given me a more relevant response.

Trusting Answers
Once we've established a context for our questions, we also need to establish a context for the answer. We want to understand where the other person is coming from and we must plan to trust the answer we get.

With my ex-husband, I gradually learned to clarify my questions and become clearer on what I wanted to know, but he would still respond with "not-even-wrong" answers!

My ex-husband was raised in a family where it was important to tell the women what they wanted to hear! So, when I would ask, "when will you be home tonight", he would assume I that didn't want him working overtime and he would tell me that he'd be home early.

I soon learned that the answer to my question bore no resemblance to the actual time he would show up. So I would start asking questions like, "I would like to plan what to do after work. My preference is to have an early dinner, but it all depends on when you'll be home. I can start cooking as soon as I come home or I might first go for a run. What time do you expect to come home?"

It worked, sometimes!

Sometimes I would call him after my run and he would say, "I'll be home in twenty minutes".

My experience was that this could mean a lot of things. His drive from work took around twenty minutes. So, I would ask, "Where are you?"

When the answer was "in the office", I would know he likely would be answering a few more emails, and making a few phone calls before heading home. I would only trust the twenty minutes when he was actually walking to the car when I called. If he were already on the road, I would clarify where he was and make my own time estimation.

Long term, this was not the way to go; I gradually trained him that I did not trust him.

So, in some cases, creating context can be useful, but not if you plan on not trusting the answer before you pose the question.

Marshall Rosenberg suggests in his book on non-violent communication that it is very useful to rephrase a statement in your own words, e.g., "What I hear you saying is... Is that what you are saying?"

We could do the same with questions, "What I hear you asking me is... Is that correct?"

Rule of thumb: Make sure that you understand the question before answering!

My sister, usually very clear in her communication, posed me some questions today.

Question 1: "Joy, will you help me?"

I am usually pretty helpful, but I do like to know what I am getting myself into. So my answer was a clarifying question, "What do you want me to help you with?"

Question 2: "Could you check if the link works?"

This required a few questions and qualifiers of my own to answer her meaningfully. I responded, "Do you mean the link that you posted on Facebook? It takes me to a site with a list of candidates. It takes me to the top of the site, but not to the specific candidate you want me to vote for. If this is the link you are referring to and that is the place you want to link to, then yes, it does work. If not..."

With all this clarification, I see myself as helpful when I answer a question, but I know that some people see me as someone who likes to make things complicated!

So What?
In the end, I think we can all become better askers and better answerers by following a few rules of thumb.
  1. If you want an actual answer, don't mask statements as questions
  2. If someone asks you a pseudo question, say, "Hey, that sounds more like a statement than a question. Is there something you'd like to say?"
  3. Before asking a question, make sure that you've established a context for it
  4. If you're not going to trust the answer anyway, then don't ask the question
  5. Before answering, make sure you actually understand the question
What do you do to get good answers to your questions? How do you make sure that you yourself are providing good answers?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review Joy, of subject matter which if appreciated more, encourages more respectful dialogue in our relationships. Dialoguing on this can only serve to enrich deeper understanding of the impasses created with loaded critical assumptions/judgements bw


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