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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

To Quest or Not to Quest, That is the Question 2.0

I was in the bathroom this morning, doing my obligatory daily duty when someone called out, “Are you done yet?” I silently, sarcastically counterattacked answering, “If I was done, I wouldn’t still be in here, there is not much entertainment value in this room. What’s your problem, can’t you see I am not done?” Since I was still in the bathroom I obviously wasn’t done. But, instead of launching my verbal ridiculing counterattack, I nicely said “Yes,” and told my body, like it was a little boy, “We are done now.” It started to protest, but I just said, “Come along now.”

I was reminded by that exchange that I find it endlessly intriguing and fascinating (50 years of wondering, noticing, learning) how we ubiquitously use questions instead of making direct requests or statements of need, to gather information or to tell others what we want or need. In this case, rather than the question that was really a non-question because the fact that I was still in the bathroom, was a clear unequivocal indication that I was not “done”, the statement might have been something like, “I’m really needing to use the bathroom, right now, I’m wondering if you could give me some idea about how much longer I might have to wait,” or “I don’t mean to rush you, but I really, really, really need to use the bathroom as soon as possible or I’ll…….!!!”

There are reasons for asking questions, and it isn’t because there is no other way of getting the information I might want or need. The simple reason is that it makes the encounter safer for me, the questioner. It puts the one being questioned on the defensive. There is typically a “right” and “wrong” answer and the person being questioned knows it.

There are well-researched and documented unintended consequences when I use questions to gather information or make statements. Bottom line, it creates an unintended emotional distancing between myself and the people I am interrogating. Questioning evokes a measurable stress response in the one being questioned.

I am not talking about the stress created by being questioned by an opposing attorney, a police officer, or a customs agent. We would expect that. I am talking about lovers, family, and friends who communicate (or attempt to) by asking questions of each other. Questions have the physiological and emotional effect of ensnaring, effectively trapping the one being questioned. Our ancient brains react to that.

Some of you might be thinking “this isn’t true for me or the people around me.” This stress reaction is, for the most part, subconscious, and unless and until they are strong enough to enter our consciousness (which they sometimes do) we are totally unaware of their presence, but our behavior will show the effects. Perhaps with snapping back at the questioner with one of our own, “Does it look like I am done?” Or a universal, “Huh?” (while we angle for more time to come up with the “right” answer.) Or the ultimate answer, a favorite of adolescents we care about, a non-verbal shrugging of shoulders to try to wriggle out of the hook; the literal hook thrown at us that marks the end of every written question.

One of our subconscious reactions to stressful situations (in this case being questioned) is to withdraw. Sometimes just a bit, sometimes a lot. We typically are not consciously aware of this happening. At the subconscious level, we feel less safe in the grips of a questioner. We may subconsciously (or intentionally) avoid situations where we know the primary mode of interaction will be of us being questioned. I know of a person whose partner would wait until he came to bed at night, and often, when they were in their most intimate moments, would interrupt the proceedings and say, “by the way….” Thereupon pummeling him with a series of questions. He quit coming to bed until his partner was asleep (thus protecting himself) a significant factor in the ultimate demise of their marital relationship.

If I want to improve the quality of a relationship important to me, I’d be advised to not use questions as a way of trying to connect or solicit information. I would use statements instead. After all, questions are simply statements in disguise. Just as complaints are requests for change in disguise.

And if there is a creep that I need and want to get rid of, I’d be advised to question them endlessly. Regardless of what they say, relentlessly bombard them with another question. The more aggressive, the better. They will eventually go away.

You might ask, “If you, Ted, don’t ask questions, how do you get information that you’d like, even need to know?” It is amazingly simple. Instead of asking “How was your day?”, I might say, “Tell me how your day was.”, or “”Catch me up…..” Us old-timers had to learn how to turn questions into statements in order to successfully diagram a sentence in our grammar classes. What we learned is that EVERY question could and must be turned into a statement if we were to complete the assignment. I don’t know if diagramming sentences is a part of basic education today, or whether it has gone the way of cursive writing. Kaput.

You might ask, what makes this approach feel safer to the one that information is being asked of? In every example given above, I am subconsciously putting myself in the vulnerable position. I am saying that I would like to know more about…...” The one being asked for information could say “I don’t want to tell you.” Subconsciously, they don’t feel trapped. They are in control. They have a choice. The ironic thing is that when they feel the freedom to choose whether to tell me what I would like to know and just how much they tell me, they are more likely and more comfortable telling me what I want to know. They feel safer. Remember, the primary reason I use the question tool in the first place is that it has the effect of putting THEM in the most vulnerable position, rather than offering myself up for their possible rejection.

“To question or not to question, that is the question.” Science is pretty clear. If I want to do my part to make a relationship work better, I won’t communicate through questions. If I want to create distance between myself and another, I will.

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