Reduce Conflict With “Why-less” Questions

I’ve got some questions for you to ponder.

“WHY ARE YOU sitting like that?”

“WHY ARE YOU reading this now?”

“WHY DO YOU have that look on your face?”

Now stop for a moment and relax.  Before you hit the delete button, let’s look at what may have happened for you.

With those questions, did you feel a bit defensive? Were you ready to send a reply to me saying, “Just because, and it’s none of your #^&$ business”?

Isn’t it interesting how the “why” questions can do that, especially when aimed at someone’s behaviour?

Think about the last time someone asked you a question that started with “why.”  If you were in tune with your body, you may have felt your blood start to boil, the hairs on the back of your neck raise, your muscles tense, or there could have been other physiological responses and feelings – especially if that person was near and dear to you.  You likely felt mildly attacked.  Or depending on the other person’s tone of voice and body language, you may have felt pummelled and condemned.  Did it feel good?

And there is a good chance that you reacted with justifications to defend your behaviour – a counter attack.  Or you turned and fled – figuratively or physically.  That would be the good ol’ fight or flight mechanism at work.

That’s what the “why” word does.  It builds up a wall of defence, and breaks down effective communication.  I think it would work better if we used questions that build up effective communication, and break down defences.

Here’s how it works.

Most of us have been taught to use questions to gain understanding and clarification.  And questions work phenomenally well, as long as our intent is to understand the other person.

Most people love to talk about themselves.  Ask a good question and they may talk for hours.  If you show genuine interest and listen to them, they feel understood and cared for.  This builds trust in a relationship.

On the other hand, if the intent of your question is to put the other person down, make him/her seem stupid, or prove that “I am right,” you may not experience effective dialogue with the person.  In this case, guess what happens to the trust in the relationship?  Trust?  What trust?

Basically, it boils down to this, “what is your intent for the question?”

I believe that if we are consciously aware of the answer to this, and if our intent is to be a kind, loving, effective human being, we would all strive to eliminate “why” questions from our communication toolbox.

My challenge for you, should you choose to accept it, is to consciously ask good intentional questions.  Be mindful that the quality of the answer is always a direct reflection of the quality of your question.  Here are some hints.

1. Be genuinely interested in others.  Other people are a wealth of information, ideas, and perspectives.  You don’t have to know everything.  All you need to know is who to ask.  Be intentional about what you want to know.

2. Start your questions with, “I’m curious about…” or “Can you help me understand…” or “I’m wondering if you can explain…”  When you preface questions this way, it indicates that you are genuinely interested in the other person’s perspective or knowledge.  You are intentionally opening a dialogue of mutual sharing.

3. “Who”, “What”, “When”, and “How” questions work very well as long as your intention is to gain understanding and you are treating the other person as an intelligent human being.

4. Be consciously aware of your body language and tone of voice.  Intentionally maintain eye contact, an open body position (legs and arms uncrossed), and have a soft, genuine facial expression (a scowl doesn’t work well).  Slightly raise the pitch of your voice at the end of your question so the other person knows it is a question and not a statement.

5. Zip the lip and listen attentively.  Intentionally refrain from interrupting, defending, or debating.  If you need further clarification, wait until the person has finished and then ask another question.

6. Accept what the other person has shared as information that you can use, or not – it’s your choice.  Their opinion is not necessarily right or wrong; just as your opinion is not necessarily right or wrong.  It’s just information.

If you consciously and intentionally apply these hints and ask good questions, it tends to reduce the emotional charge and allows the information and emotions to be discussed in an honest, open way.

You may be thinking, “Oh sure, but what if the other person goes ballistic?”

If that occurred, my question for you is, “I’m curious about what would happen if you used their reaction as feedback about the quality of your question, took a deep breath, consciously clarified your intention, and then rephrased your question in a calm, loving way?”

As a husband, father, and coach, I’ve learned how to do this quite effectively.  It hasn’t always been easy and I slip now and then, but it has been an extremely rewarding skill.

For me, the secret to effective questions, effective communication, and successful life, is the intention.  I continually ask myself this question, “In this situation, what is my intention?”

To conclude this conversation, my final question for you is this, “How exceptional do you think you can feel when you consciously apply these hints today?”