Last week, I talked about conflict and how asking questions, rather than making assumptions, can make communication easier and prevent problems. This week, I want to delve a little more into this topic and then offer up some tips on the right way to ask questions.
In conversation with anyone, including those we’re closest to, it’s extremely easy to make assumptions about how that person feels, what they think, and why they do the things they do. We make these assumptions based on our own beliefs and our own issues, and if we don’t ask questions, we never really know where that person is coming from. And if you don’t know where that person is coming from, good luck succeeding with them.
Here are a couple of examples:
- Your partner says no to sex. Again. You can make a plethora of assumptions here: he/she doesn’t love you anymore, isn’t attracted to you anymore, is having an affair, that your relationship is growing more distant, that you’ve gained too much weight, you’re not as hot as the hottie next door, or that porn or romance novels are killing your sex life. Or, you go optimistic and assume he/she is just tired, under a lot of stress at work, struggling with their body image, or that long-term couples don’t have that much sex anyway. It could be any one of these things, or none of them. It could be the thing you suspect, or something entirely different. It could be a fixable problem, or a not-so-fixable problem.
- The guy you’ve been dating for a few weeks stops calling. It could be that he met someone “better.” Or that he didn’t like your friends after finally meeting them. Or that he’s the kind that gets bored with every woman after a few dates. Or that you’re just not hot enough for him. Or that you were too clingy. Or too distant. Or too silly. Or too serious. I know a woman this happened to. Things went great, then he stopped calling. She was convinced it was due to the significant amount of weight she’d gained (ignoring the fact that if he didn’t like her weight, he wouldn’t have dated her in the first place). Eventually, he called and apologized, explaining that he’d run into an old girlfriend and they’d gotten back together. A bummer, but better than her assumptions.
And that’s the thing. Like the woman who gained weight, we often make assumptions about people’s behavior based our issues, rather than their issues. We don’t know the other person’s issues because we’re too afraid to ask.
Asking questions is important, especially in close relationships. When someone says or does something you don’t like, find out more. But do so while keeping a few things in mind:
- Don’t mock or sound like a jerk. If the person you’re arguing with says they hate steak, don’t say, “How can you possibly hate steak?” That’s not asking a question, it’s criticizing while making a weak attempt to hide that fact.
- Don’t poke holes. If you ask your partner why he hates Trump just so you can poke holes in his argument. you aren’t asking questions… you’re looking to win an argument. And arguments are opportunities to learn, not battles to win or lose.
- Ask to learn and obtain information. Do so by keeping your tone neutral. You may not get a straight answer at first, but if you get the truth and avoid criticism or hole-poking, you’re more liking to get the truth in the future. And the truth, whether you like it or not, is the key to resolving problems.
The thing about arguments is that when people get upset, suddenly they become self-absorbed. They’re obsessed with their own feelings and their own perspective, fighting for it like a warrior in battle. But relationships aren’t an “every man for himself” kind of thing. Relationships succeed when we think about the other person’s needs as much as we think about ours. When you ask questions, you momentarily stop making it about you and focus on them. And that can have some amazing effects.
For one, you’ll find that, often, people’s hackles go down when you actually give a shit about their opinion and not just your own. It can be a way to garner trust. In my experience, I’ve had conversations with people who were super stubborn and narrow-minded about something they were sensitive about. When I quit arguing with them, showed some interest in their feelings, and asked a question or two, they often backed down and, in many cases, took some responsibility or admitted wrongdoing. When people feel heard, they’re more likely to listen.
Does this always happen? No. Some people are difficult. But it often does.
Ask questions. Get to the truth.