Have you ever started a conversation with the intention of having a rational, even-tempered discussion and walked away feeling like you were engaged in a lecture? When talking to your partner, child, coworker, or friend, it is easy to fall into a conversation trap. Emotionally charged topics can set off heated debates or simple questions can escalate into arguments. How do you talk and avoid nagging, arguing or placing blame? It’s easier than you might think and it all starts without asking “Why?”
Why Not Why
When a question is started with “Why…” it puts the recipient into a defensive place. Imagine that your partner asks you, “Why didn’t you join the group?” How is your response to that question different than if he or she asks, “What made you decide not to join the group?” The first question likely caused you to feel a bit threatened and the second probably generated a more thoughtful response.
Beginning a question with the word “why” makes the person being asked feel as though she must defend her choice, as a child might respond to an overbearing parent. Starting with “how” or “what” frames the question as an adult asking an adult.
Retrain Your Brain
Asking “Why…?” is a habit. It’s an easy word to use when asking a question. Consider how many times you ask your children a question and lead with “why.” Asking better questions to encourage conversation takes practice.
An example of a common “why” question is, “Why didn’t you turn in your homework?” A few alternatives to consider are:
- · What happened today that kept you from turning in your homework?
- · What needs to happen for you to turn in your homework on time?
- · How can you make sure you turn your homework in tomorrow?
- · How do you want to prepare for school to make sure your homework gets turned in on time?
- · What support do you need to make sure your homework gets turned in?
- · What is the missing piece between doing your homework here and turning it in at school?
Retrain Their Brains
Some of you are reading this and saying “Sure, that’s great, but I ask my kids 20 times a day why they don’t pick up after themselves. I don’t have time to think of a “how” or “what” question!”
I get it. You just want the behavior changed so you don’t have to ask again. Starting with “how” or “what” can actually help, as the person answering likely won’t say “because” or offer a knee-jerk response. Responses to “how” and “what” are more likely to be solutions than explanations and these solutions can lead to forward movement and change.
Adult to Adult
Asking questions this way to other adults may sit better with you because you imagine them giving you a courteous, adult, response. Conversing this way with an adult when talking about a sensitive topic can ease the tension. The dynamics with peers are different than they are with children; however, we are training little people to become big people. Allowing them to practice responding like an adult will help to develop their communication skills.
Why not give it a try?