We all use questions during our communications with others. In intimate relationships, however, it is often difficult to determine the intent of the questioner. And this is what creates a problem. Not all questions are created equal. Questions can be used to:
- collect data, information sharing, and to enhance knowledge
- engage in cross-examination, challenge a belief system, and to debate
- satisfy curiosity
- gain clarity
- initiate a dialogue
- invite an exploration
Unless the questioners make their intent clear from the outset, it is very easy for the respondent to misinterpret the intent and feel attacked, become defensive, or many other emotions.
In addition to the content of the question, two other variables come into play: tone/inflection and facial expression/body posture. The interaction between the content of the question and the non-verbal aspects of the question can cause a mixed message to be delivered with the respondent left confused, frustrated, or irritated.
Take, for example, a simple question such as “What time is it?” Coming out of the mouth of spouse or parent, such a question may be less about the time on a clock, but more about “get your butt in gear we/you are supposed to be out of here in five minutes!!” Similarly, with the question, “Why are you doing that?”, the questioner may be less interested in what one is doing, but in actuality is making a judgment about the wisdom of doing whatever the respondent is doing. And the reaction may be more to the tone and style than to the question itself. Questioners often hide their intent behind the innocuous comment, “I was just asking a simple question.” In these two examples, the questions are not really intended as questions; they are both statements camouflaged as questions. And it is to the hidden demand, accusation, or judgment that the respondent reacts.
Often the venue or the nature of the relationship may set the stage for how to interpret the question. For example, in a lawyer’s office the attorney’s questions are designed to collect information and gain clarity. In a courtroom, the questions are designed to prove innocence or guilt, to collect data, or to engage in cross examination. In a classroom, the teacher’s question may serve to challenge students to think, assess knowledge, or invite exploration. As a psychologist when I question my patients, I always advise them that I am seldom looking for a specific answer to a question. Most of my inquiries are designed to invite them to explore a particular topic. I may also want to gain clarity or challenge a faulty belief system.
In my opinion, when it comes to intimate relationships, questions should be used judiciously. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the question should always be preceded by a statement as to the intent of the questioner. We all bring our past experiences with being questioned to our intimate relationships. Hence, our reactions to being questioned will be affected by these experiences. When in the role of questioner, we have learned to use questions to deliver a message as well as to gain information. The interaction of the two systems can create conflict. If the questioner is making a veiled accusation or judgement through his or her questions, and the recipient has a history of being falsely accused, the results of that interaction can be volatile. Even if the intent of the question was innocent, the recipient may still have a negative reaction given his/her history.
By stating in advance what your intent is, there is a good chance that a negative or defensive reaction could be avoided. Rather than saying, “What time is it?”, If one were to say, “We have to leave at 8 PM, are you aware of that we only have ten minutes to be ready?” the intent is clear. Or, rather than saying “why are you putting on a tie?” one could say “I notice that your are putting on a tie. Are you aware that we are going to an informal BBQ rather than a sit-down diner?” In the first instance, the question may be heard as a criticism, whereas in the second it become clear that the question is intended to give information and be helpful.
Questions in intimate relationships are often subterfuges. Rather than serving to engage the intended respondent, they frequently serve to disguise the questioner’s true feelings or motives. They thus become disingenuous. And it is this subterfuge that can create distance, argument, and anger between the parties. On the other hand, questions that are authentically designed to engage through genuine curiosity and interest, can generate a platform for potential closeness and intimacy.
The TV personality, Barbara Walters, became expert in the art of interviewing. She was able to use questions to artfully and empathically connect with the interviewee thereby eliciting information that might otherwise have remained hidden. Her subjects felt her genuine interest and caring as she probed sensitive areas leaving her subjects feel safe and comfortable. On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the pundit Bill O’Reilly whose questions made most of his guests squirm with discomfort and become defensive or argumentative; his questions were designed make him appeal to his conservative audience with little genuine interest in the interviewee. In intimate relationships, if you are going to use questions, you would be better off being like Barbara Walters. However, even then you must keep in mind that her subjects volunteered to be interviewed.
- In intimate relationships, if you are going to question your partner, it would be best for you to create a caring connection and then fully disclose the intent of your questions while being sensitive to the mood, climate, and feelings of the person you are questioning.
- Remember, questions by their very nature are intrusive. You are requiring something of the person being questioned. The burden of a reply is totally on the respondent.
- Your questions take very little energy on your part; the responsibility of a reply lays totally with the respondent.
- By disclosing the purpose of your questions and sharing your intent, you are offering something of yourself thereby making the interaction more symmetrical. The respondent will at least know where you are coming from.
- Remember, just because you ask a question does not mean the respondent is required to answer. Allow room in your questioning for the other person to decline to answer without being judged or criticized.
If you follow these guidelines, you increase the probability of receiving a response while maintaining a connection and avoiding discord.
[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica – Los Angeles. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to charity through the website Book Royalties for Charity and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Please become a fan on his Facebook Fan Page by indicating “like” on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit his website.]