My pink grapefruit example helps us evaluate our use of questions and how to make them more effective.
I bought a box of pink grapefruit from a guy at work. His school-aged child was selling it for some cause at school. The list had other citrus on it but I rarely have a pink grapefruit even though I love them and I thought my wife loved them too.
We were out to a restaurant this evening and I brought up the fact that I purchased the box of grapefruit. That’s when it started–20 questions. Actually not 20 because I was disturbed after 4 questions but they kept coming? “Why did you do that, you didn’t ask me first?” “What did they cost?” “Who did you buy them from?” “What else did he have on the order form?” “Why didn’t you buy oranges? I like oranges more than grapefruit.”
What thoughts were going through my mind as I was pummeled? “I am a responsible adult.” “Can’t I spend $20 of a box of fruit if I want to?”
I also began evaluating why I was defensive and how her questions were making me feel. Emotionally and rationally I felt not trusted, even untrustworthy. I was not feeling accepted as a responsible partner to her.
I must admit that I have done the same thing to her with just about the same reaction on her side. Ironically, however, having it done to you doesn’t necessarily teach one anything about how to approach a similar situation in a better manner. I did receive a bit of training recently on approaching someone with questions and so I’d like to offer up some of the insights. Let me get my manual.
The best questions start with “what” or “how.” You can always ask someone to “describe…” Don’t ask questions that start with “why” because the why is probing motive and motive is usually not the issue. Probing motive does not create more trust and does not affirm the other person.
After several “what” or “how” questions in a row it is a good idea either to thank the person for answering and/or asking permission to ask another question. Those gestures nurture trust and set the person at ease, letting them know they are not being controlled or manipulated.
Another point to keep in mind, don’t put a suggestion on the form of a question. A good way to pick up on these type questions is to note that “you” is usually the second word in the question. “Should you ask me before you purchase fruit in the future?” “Do you think you should go back to your coworker and take your name off his list?” Another term for these type questions is solution-oriented questions. Generally, no matter what the relationship to the other person, our questions should be structured in such a way as to leave any conclusions open and allow the other person to give input before developing conclusions or judgements.
With just a small amount of forethought and patience we can learn to affirm the other person even through questions. Our questions should always nurture trust, not take it down a notch. Think about this approach. I believe your relationships will be the better for it.
Comment here if you have insights on how to or how not to approach a person with questions.