I often share meals with close friends. The talk is our sustenance, the food incidental. And the conversation flows, unguarded. We are skilled players of the verbal ping-pong that carries us forward, inquiring and learning about the other, disclosing what is important about our lives at that moment, Ours is a dance with the steps so practiced, there is no need to be mindful about the questions we pose. We risk little, even with a misstep.
But consider different settings where this is not so, when a question asked without sufficient forethought turns a conversation awry:
The cardinal rule taught in law school is to never interrogate a witness in a courtroom without knowing the answer in advance. The temptation can be so great. One last probe to emphasize the essential winning point: “And why is that Mrs. Jones?” Then a response issues that surprises and wipes out earlier testimony.
But that is the courtroom where the choreography of words spoken is critical. Need this be so in our personal lives? In our professional lives? Is the art of asking questions so important? In mediation sessions, as I observe the impact of the questions the parties ask each other, and the responses to those that I pose, I’ve come to think it is.
When negotiating, or even just conversing with a loved one, a question can either bring someone to a desired destination or evoke a defensive response that creates a barrier, sets the players apart, and prevents, or at least postpones, a positive outcome. And mindfulness is especially called for when there is tension in the air. Is the inquiry, the tone of voice, even the quality of eye contact, free of criticism or judgment? Experience has taught me that when I’m simply reacting without much thought, without consideration of the goal I’m seeking, opportunity for agreement, or an intimate connection, is often lost.
The distinctions can be subtle. Here are some suggestions:
Ask: Can you tell me more about that? (open, accepting)
Not: Do you really believe that? (veiled belligerence)
Ask: Would it be helpful for me to explain my reasoning? (respect, consultation)
Not: Do you understand my point? (intelligence called into question)
Or in a more personal vein:
Ask: Feel like talking about what happened last night? (an invitation)
Not: Isn’t it high time we talked about what happened last night? (command performance)
If a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue avoided, — either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty — consider first saying: we need to have a difficult conversation.
The respect shown by not taking another unaware, offering even just a moment to prepare, may set the stage for willing consideration of the issue at hand, There are times when both conversation partners will be off balance. Just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.
And here is another rule it might be sound to consider: Some questions are best left unasked.
Do you think these pants are too tight?
How many calories in this banana cream pie?
Do you still love me?