Cover photo by Evan Dennis, Unsplash.
A friend once told me that only humans ask questions.
Not even animals with large vocabularies, such as certain birds and other higher primates, ask questions.
I asked her why she thought even the apes who’ve learned sign language don’t ask questions. She said, “maybe it doesn’t occur to them that others have the information they lack.”
I found that explanation interesting, though I don’t know if it’s correct. However, it is true that even higher primates do not ask questions. I looked it up.
Harness the Power
We humans, on the other hand, seem to take asking questions for granted. I want to pay homage to the question today, and its amazing power.
Of course, the most obvious power of the question is the ability to glean information.
Ask a question, get an answer. Ideally a correct answer. 🙂
But what’s really awesome is that questions can do so much more!
In particular, they can help correct what I see as a flaw in how most people (at least in my culture) respond to people in need of empathy and support.
- …help you facilitate when someone needs to vent.
- …calm people down.
- …help you validate someone’s feelings
- …express empathy.
- …and so much more.
Test this and see for yourself!
Trial and Error
I discovered the power of questions while dealing with a person who struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD is really hard to deal with, as anyone who has ever tried can attest.
But the benefits of asking lots of questions are not confined to dealing with people who have personality disorders. Questions can help you in dealing with anyone and everyone.
I generally think work seminars and lectures are a waste of time. If they don’t at least pass out cookies, there is truly no point in being there at all. 🙂
But once in a blue moon, there is a useful takeaway.
Once I was dragged to a lecture where the person said that anger is always a cover for something else.
Hmm..that is actually interesting. Especially since I’ve found it to be true.
If you feel angry, probe until you find the underlying cause. Often you will discover that you feel frustrated, powerless, embarrassed, rejected, betrayed, etc.
Knowing what you’re really feeling–what is at the root of your anger–can help you deal with it effectively.
For me, this was an amazing discovery.
When someone is angry (whether that someone is yourself or another person), focus on finding out why.
Think of your questions as a root cause analysis where you’re dispassionately trying to get to the bottom of this anger thing.
A Coffee Shop Example
Let’s say you’re a barista in a coffee shop and an enraged customer starts screaming at you. Take a deep breath…and then try to stick to asking questions.
Sample Dialogue: <
“Sir, what’s wrong exactly?” <customer answers>
“Okay, would you like me to remake your drink or will another pump of mocha fix the problem?” <customer answers>
“What can we do to make this right?” Maybe offer a coupon or a free pastry…and so on.
You just keep right on asking…until the problem is resolved.
You should know that I didn’t just pull this example out of nowhere. I’ve seen something like this barista-customer scenario in action. 🙂
Try it. It doesn’t always work but it often does.
Just ask, ask, ask and stay focused on resolving the issue together. Don’t react emotionally yourself.
It may be that the person is angry because he is frustrated. He was already in a hurry and he waited for 10 minutes to get his extra hot mocha, only to find it was made incorrectly.
Or maybe he is mad about a lot of other things—the dog chewing apart his work shoes, the gridlock traffic he faces on his daily commute, a mean boss–who knows? And this mocha mishap was merely the last straw
He can’t really yell at his boss and he doesn’t want to kick his dog…but he can yell at you, random barista!
It really doesn’t matter why he’s flipping out. The point is to get him to stop taking it out on you. To diffuse his anger and send him on his way.
Unless the person is truly moonbat crazy, aking a series of questions will probably work.
Having one’s feeling diminished or invalidated during childhood may contribute to the development of Borderline Personality Disorder.
No one is sure exactly what causes BPD. There may also be a genetic component that creates a predisposition. Like most things, it’s complicated.
Still, (often unintentional) invalidating or diminishing of emotions is something to consider if you are raising children! Learning how to empathize and validate could literally be life-changing for someone you love.
But even when you’re past the point of prevention, you can use the same strategies. If you are dealing with someone who already suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (or anyone, really), facilitate, validate, empathize…that’s the winning formula.
Your greatest tool for doing all three is the question.
The best part is that you don’t even have to be really good at formulating questions. You don’t have to ask great questions. Just ask and ask and ask…
Go Ahead…I Dare You…Invalidate Me!
If you’ve ever dealt with a person who has BPD, you may have found they invite you to invalidate them by saying outlandish things.
They might insist they should be able to go into the most crime-ridden, impoverished part of town and parade around in the middle of the night with $100 bills taped all over their clothing.
You might be tempted to say, “that’s crazy…only a fool would do such a thing.”
Please don’t! This is likely to cause the person to become agitated and argue with you!
Instead, ask a question. “Why do you think that’s a good idea?” Listen to the answer and then try to ask another question.
Don’t just wait for the person to finish answering so that you can share your own thoughts. You’re the facilitator, so keep asking questions.
The whole point is to let the person know you’re listening, and you’re not invalidating whatever s/he’s saying.
Don’t Patronize Me!
Be sure to empathize with a person who has Borderline Personality Disorder. That is advice I’ve read many times.
Try it and see what happens! (Or don’t…)
Let’s say you say to the person after listening to them for a bit, “That must have been really frustrating…”
The person might start quibbling endlessly over your word choice. “NO! It was not ‘frustrating’!” Pick another word…get more protest.
Or maybe the person might accuse of you of being “patronizing.” Or playing therapist..or using NLP…or who knows what else!
As I said before, people with BPD can be…challenging. 🙂
Sigh. Deep breath…
Try expressing empathy through questions instead.
“How did that make you feel?” or “Was that frustrating for you?”
Just turn everything into a question. It works. And in some situations, it’s literally the ONLY thing that works!
Help for Anyone and Everyone
This approach also works on others who are not suffering from BPD.
Just an ordinary person in despair can benefit. This works with pretty much everyone!
My friend said she is divorced and is having a hard time finding a husband. She fears she will be alone for the rest of her life.
How do you think a lot of people respond to her when she says things like this?
In an effort to comfort her, most people will do one of two things or some combination of both!
Some well-meaning friends may say, “oh, I’m sure you’ll find someone…you just need to keep looking.”
They may even diminish her problem by saying she’s not really “alone” but rather “single,” and hey…marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway…single can be fun too!
Then perhaps the well-meaning person will suggest she try an online dating service. “Have you tried Plenty of Fish?”
Or “My friend Sandy tried Plenty of Fish and now she’s married to the best guy ever… ” As if this person has no idea online dating is a thing now. Or really wants to hear about how lucky your friend Sandy is. 🙂
Not really helpful. This sort of approach is almost always ineffective and possibly even harmful.
You have given her nothing but a worthless reassurance and advice she doesn’t need.
Try this Instead…..
- “Why are you convinced you won’t find a husband?”
- “What avenues have you already tried?”
- “What do you think is standing in the way of finding a husband?”
- “What are some things you really want a husband to bring to your life?”
It doesn’t even matter what you ask! The whole point is to let the person talk.
Let her vent. Let her tell you what she’s feeling and why.
This leaves most people feeling relieved and happier than they were before you facilitated a discussion for them.
Please Don’t Steal the Conversation Token!
Here is a word of caution…from the kettle to the pot. 🙂
Most people like to talk. We like talking better than we like listening.
So sometimes instead of actually listening, a person is really just waiting for the other person to finish so he or she can talk
Consciously try not to do that. Really listen, and especially if a person is really upset.
Have you ever been trying desperately to express your emotions, and someone just keeps blocking you…interjecting his or her own tangents?
“I’m really upset because my husband doesn’t listen to me….” and the other person says, “I know, right? My husband is so bad about that too….” and then is off and running with her own story!
That is stealing the conversation token! And it’s really unhelpful.
CONFESSION: I do this sometimes. Never on purpose! It just happens and sometimes because I’m actually trying to relate to the person’s plight. “Yeah…I experience that too…”
But it’s a lot more generous and helpful to ask questions instead!
The more the other party is in some sort of emotional turmoil, the more important it is to facilitate with questions and let him or her do the talking!
Ask and listen. That’s the idea. It’s simple and yet incredibly powerful.
Let the other person express frustration or whatever the underlying emotion is. If you do this, people will feel better, and often they will figure things out for themselves.
I would say the strategic use of questions to help people is one of the most valuable tools I’ve ever discovered.
Which is of course why I wanted to share it with you. 🙂
Have you tried something like this already? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.