Just Don’t Ask

There are times when personal experience informs the professional practice. This is the story of one of those times.

My husband was of Norwegian descent. He wrote with eloquence, but except when teaching or working with his students, he was a man of few words who could comfortably go for long periods without speaking at all. In the early years of our marriage, I was often unsure whether his silence conveyed unhappiness. So I would probe, ask a question, and then another, but at these times his sparse responses served to close not open the door to understanding.

I talked of this with a psychologist friend. Her response: you need to learn some new dance steps. Stop asking questions. Just tell him something about yourself, only a few sentences, and make no accusations. See what happens.

It worked. A brief back and forth began and he shared a few important words. The next day, my new steps were repeated and a bit more disclosure followed, and we both were more at ease.

Recently the occasion arose to offer this wisdom to another.

The newly separated father and mother seated on my office couch came in to address his accusation that their seven-year-old daughter was being turned against him. Despite his efforts to engage her in conversation, she was unwilling to talk with him in any meaningful way. He believed this was all his wife’s doing.

First we deconstructed the usual conversation father and daughter had as she climbed into his car when he picked her up at school at the start of his assigned weekend.

He: Hi sweetie, how was your day?
She: Fine
He: Learn anything new?
She: Not much.
He: Any good friends in your class?
She: Um hum.
He: So, play with them today?
She: Yes.
He: What sort of games?
She: Oh, just stuff.

Now frustrated, he would shut down, angry and hurt, and they rode along in silence until reaching his home where his daughter would shower affection on the dog, turn on the TV and cuddle with her pet. He felt the outsider. This conversation dance would repeat many times during the visit.

Bringing to mind my past experience with a sometimes silent partner, I suggested: Try this: Stop asking questions. Just talk about yourself, nothing too profound and not accusing or in any way critical. Maybe talk about what happened to you earlier in the day. But no questions.

He was smiling upon return for their next visit to my office and reported: Amazing! Picked her up at school. No questions. Told her about the pizza I had for lunch, made with anchovies, which I hate, and what a time I had dislodging them from the layers of cheese. She told me about the yucky salmon patties served in the school cafeteria and how one of the boys started tossing them around and got into trouble and that she knew his older sister who was stuck up. So, I told her about a woman in my office who was stuck up, and she asked why I thought people got that way. We had a great talk.

Hard to know what this youngster’s feelings were when she left school with her father instead of returning to the parent with whom she was perhaps more comfortable. What subliminal message did she carry from her mother? Did his being the one who left their home feel like abandonment? Did she wonder if she was at fault for what had happened between her parents? No easy way for a seven-year-old to address these issues, even for herself. Was closing the door on his questions a perfect defense against revealing a confusion of emotion?

No monumental disclosures were made, but tensions eased and the possibility for real talk was there again.

So, refraining from asking questions of those who are withdrawn, young and old alike, and telling your own story, may be the best step to take.