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The Right Question
by Celia Straus
Why is it that so many of us have trouble communicating with our children? When I first hit the communications barrier I was the mother of seven and eleven year old daughters and it was in the context of pre-adolescence. Now my oldest is twenty and away at college and my youngest is driving and I'm still overcoming ommunications barriers. Moreover, several good friends who have much younger children in elementary school have the same problem, so it appears the context has broadened. From what I've gathered from teens and their parents who Email my web site, and from discussing this topic with my daughters' friends, much of the problem stems from how we, as parents, try to communicate. In our efforts to jumpstart a conversation, we sabotage the process by asking the wrong questions, questions guaranteed to stop communication in its tracks.
The Judgmental Question:
We often make judgments under the guise of asking questions, and we do it often enough that those close to us, such as our children, spouses, partners or friends have our number. Who wants to have a conversation with someone who is continually expressing an opinion about your behavior but pretending not to? For example, as my daughter and I are driving along in silence, I'll ask a question that is actually a judgment such as, "Why don't we ever talk anymore?" This elicits nothing remotely like an intimate conversation, but instead, an irritated, single word response, "What?" followed by more silence. This is because we both know that what I am really saying is, "It's your fault we don't talk anymore. Goodness knows I try."
Another example would be when my daughter is halfway out the door to go to the movies with friends dressed in jeans and a skimpy halter-top, and I ask, "You're not going to wear that out without something over it, are you?" Again, I get what I deserve, which is another, this time defiant one word response, "Yes," because we both understand that I am voicing my disapproval, not for a moment seriously thinking my question will change her choice of outer wear. After all, she and I know that I learned to pick my battles long ago.
The Already Answered Question:
We also ask questions when we already know what the response will be, and, in fact, are asking the question so we'll get our preconceived opinions reinforced. This line of questioning is most often used to describe take-no-risks adult relationships as in, "Should we go out to dinner for a change?" "Not when it's so convenient to order in." or "Do I look fat?" "No way." or "Breastfeeding is the way to go, right?" "Of course." But we also ask these questions of our children, which, again, they quickly catch on to so that they tailor their responses to please and pacify us. For instance, how self-serving is it to ask my daughter these questions: "Homework about done?" "Did you get home at a reasonable hour?" "There wasn't any drinking was there?" When she was much younger, I'd ask: "Isn't this fun?" or "You're not fighting with your sister are you?" The problem with the already answered question is that we get into the habit of allowing it to pass for honest open communication, particularly if we get lazy about our relationships. With both the judgmental question and the already answered question we are sending the message that, "It's not really about you I care about, it's about me."
The Mindless Question:
There is also the question asked because not saying anything seems awkward and hard or because we think we should ask something to demonstrate that we care about the person. These questions are relationship "filler" that are asked so often they become "white noise" to both parties since as soon as we ask them, we mentally move on without sticking around to hear the answer. The "ask" was the goal. I'll ask mindless questions of my daughter like: "Will you call me if there's a problem?" "Everything go okay?" "Will you try to go to bed a little earlier tonight?" "Tired?" It's not that I don't love her, it's just that we're both busy and we both know the routine, and feel like we're connected even though in my mind I'm probably long gone by the time she answers, if she answers at all. Again, our questions are self-centered, not other-centered and we underestimate those we love if we think they don't know that fact.
Fortunately for our relationships with those we care about, not all questions need be wrong. The right questions are at our disposal if we'll only take the time and generosity of spirit to ask them. However, it's not as easy as you might think because it requires--get ready for this--stepping back from your own needs and wants and being open to someone else's. The right questions come when it is not "all about me." They require that we cultivate curiosity--the old fashioned kind of curiosity we had as children when we truly wondered what the other person was thinking. Can we give up our egos long enough to ask questions that may elicit answers that make us feel hurt, angry, surprised, guilty, joyful, more curious, relieved, unbalanced. Basically, can we ask a question that we cannot control the answer to because there is no "right" answer, but that we genuinely want answered?
Ironically, our inner selves are not ego-driven, but genuinely love and honor the truth of the person we love. If we are able to focus on what is real instead of what we want to think is real, we will be better able to ask questions that build connections instead of stopping them cold. For example, instead of asking, "Why don't we ever talk anymore," I might ask, "What is it that works with you when it comes to talking with me?" or "What is it that you enjoy when we are silent together?" We want to invite honesty and authenticity. We want to erase the judgment out of our questions so that they come across as value neutral but genuinely curious. We want to ask questions that come from our heart because authentic, honest, open questions are the only ones that garner authentic, honest, open answers, and when they do, you have a conversation that connects and nourishes your relationship.
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