Handling poor questions

Ever wonder why you’re annoyed by some questions? It could be because of how it’s been asked and then you feel the obligation of answering it because you don’t want to be rude. Or you know that answering it won’t lead to any sort of great conversation. And that’s basically a dead end.

Even when you’re asked a poor question, there are ways to get off that dead end path. Better yet, there’s one way to handle it so that you can change the dynamic of the conversation. And I’ll outline the first part of the strategy here and the second part in the next article.

Now, there are many more poor questions out there, I discuss a few of my favourites in the previous post. However, you can apply the following strategy with any question that you don’t particularly like.

This strategy is modified from the works of psycholinguist Suzette Haden Elgin whom I owe so much to. Her work helped me through conversational dynamics where I thought I was driving myself crazy. And it turns out I could stop doing so and respond to questions another way.

The first thing you need to do is change your mind about the question being asked. This is the hardest thing to do. Because once we’ve decided we don’t like a question or the conversation of a particular person, we see all the signs that point to why we’re right.

In order to help change your mind about the person asking a poor question, you’ll need to use Miller’s Law (based on psychologist George Miller).

Miller’s Law: You assume what the other person is saying is true.

What? You heard correctly. You assume but you don’t have to accept that it’s true. For example, when people ask me “Where are you really from?”. I make an assumption that what they’re asking is “why are you brown?”. But assuming what they’re saying is true means hearing the question without my added thoughts or interpretation of that question.

It doesn’t mean that I accept it’s true that they’re asking out of genuine curiosity about me. It only means that I assume their words are true without focusing on the intent of those words (which by the way is impossible to know because we don’t always know the true intent of our actions).

Instead of focusing on the intent, I only have to focus on their words (what they actually say) to be true.

It then becomes easier to see the words and then respond to those words. Instead of responding to their intention.

But wait? What if that question comes from a place of prejudice? Well, that could be true, couldn’t? Let me ask you this: is it your responsibility to reveal that that question is coming from a place of prejudice?

It isn’t. It’s the other person’s responsibility to communicate their true intention and have their actions match it. It’s not yours to decipher it and help them become a more effective communicator. And what you’ll find is that when you respond from a place of hearing their words instead of their intention, their true intentions will be revealed in the course of your conversation with them. And if it’s from a place of prejudice, you’ll know because of their actions through their words, not your assumption.

So, great? Then, what do you do? Well, then you can answer this question any way you want. It then becomes a question, a question that is inquiring a piece of information about you. That’s it. It’s not about your skin colour or their curiosity or anything else. Because you get to answer it how you want based on hearing the words.

In the next article, I discuss one way to respond to poor questions so you can deliver a message that you want. Check out the article on How to Answer a Poor Question. If you want to hear more about shifting your mindset around Miller’s Law, then check out the podcast episode 5: How to handle poor questions Part One.

Types of poor questions

Most of us get asked them and most of us ask them. A lot of poor questions are hand me down scripts from our family, friends and society (media). We learn how to ask questions from speaking age and continue the cycle until we unlearn what we want to unlearn.

Why unlearn them? Well, if we want to have better relationships and communicate confidently we need to start with a way that leads to dialogue. And that is usually with a question.

Here’s a break down of questions I’ve heard in my conversations (and I’ve asked them too). What’s also maybe interesting is that these types of questions are also used in most other languages as I’ve noticed them in conversations not in English.

I define poor questions as questions that don’t influence dialogue in the conversation. Here are four common types of poor questions:

1. Yes/No (or closed) Questions. This is so redundant. We are told to ask open ended questions all the time yet most of don’t take that advice. Closed questions serve a very important purpose when clarity is needed in transactions that involve safety, health, etc. When it comes to our conversations in some of our closest relationship we tend to lean into this familiarity.

In a lot of cases, people tend to answer it as an open question anyway. The subtly here is giving the person space to tell their story in the way they want to without giving it a positive (Yes) or negative (No) slant. It may seem uncomfortable at first but you may get a more interesting story with “How was your holiday?” rather than “Did you enjoy your holiday?”.

2. The question is not aligned with your intention. This usually happens when we are focused on the other person so much that we end up masking our real intention because we think we are protecting the other person. When really we are protecting how someone views us. We ask “are you going to have the last piece of cake?” instead of “can I have the last piece?” because it looks like we’ve taken into account the other person’s wishes. But really that question is about whether or not you can have the last piece of cake without fault.

We also do this with questions we think are sensitive. As a person of colour, I get asked “where are you really from?” instead of “what’s your ethnicity?”. It seems forward and direct to ask it but that’s a lot better than disguising it in a question that isn’t really understandable.

Figuring out your intention and aligning your question with it makes you a more confident communicator and people respond to that differently.

3. Negative control questions. These are the worst because you don’t answer them correctly ever. One type of negative control is when you are telling someone to do something: “why don’t you wash up?”. Asking it this way instead of “could you wash up?” implies that there is resistance to the question already, as if the person doesn’t want to do it.

The other type of negative control is to ask for a reason someone did something that we don’t like. “Why didn’t you bring a jacket?” or “Why didn’t you come (to the party) with Peter?”. It may seem like a normal way to converse but try and reverse the question without using “not” and see what it reveals.

“Why are you dressed this way?” or “Why did you come alone?” Notice how the positive way of asking the question seems more invasive about a person’s decision. And it’s why we don’t ask it in this way. Also, when we ask in the negative way we put people in a defensive position to explain something they supposedly “should have” done (according to the person asking) – again we think they’re resisting us. So, your friend should have brought a jacket as well as come to the party with Peter.

4. Statements as questions. This one is tricky. Yet, I have caught myself doing this and on the receiving end of it. It’s statements like “I thought you were vegetarian.” or “I didn’t know that’s what you’re working on.” There’s nothing wrong with the statements by themselves, it’s how people respond to them. The statement, in example about being vegetarian, is often answered with, a confirmation of being or not vegetarian added with the why. That’s a whole lot of answers for no question.

None of these question are right or wrong in conversations, it’s a matter of leading a conversation into better dialogue so that you can ultimately have better relationships in your life.

In the next article I discuss how to handle these types of poor questions.

How to answer where are you really from?

Where are you really from? A great question! Don’t think so? Well, I used to feel infuriated by it. Why wasn’t my first answer acceptable?

Today, I love answering this question and it goes to say that often people don’t get a response they expect. So, how can you love this question?

Chances are, by adulthood, you feel irritated with this question and sometimes full blown anger. Hearing the same questions can influence us to have repeated feelings and then they become intensified over time.

And if you’re at that point, know that it’s ok to feel anger over it. All those emotions are ok.

But what’s not ok is when we want to stop feeling like this over a question that happens in everyday conversation and we feel there isn’t something we can do about it.

I didn’t want to feel anger for the simple reason that this question “where are you from?” is one of the most common questions asked when you meet someone new. Anger isn’t a great way to start any conversation.

Here’s what I did (over and over again in conversations) to get to a place of loving this question. This is one way I choose to handle it:

  1. Find an element that you love about your story regarding the place you consider where you’re from. Choose a story that brings up a positive emotion in you. An example could be that your city was home to a famous television series (that’s my answer) or it could be where the Olympics took place and you attended them. It can be anything as long as you genuinely love that part of your story.
  2. Come up with 3 sentences telling that story. You can use this to answer the first question “Where are you from?” like the example in the figure below.
  3. Be prepared for 2 scenarios:
    1. Best case scenario: The conversation might go off on a tangent based on the 3 sentence story you shared with them. They might connect to the story and you start a real dialogue.
    2. Worst case scenario: The person is focused on knowing the reason you don’t look or sound like them and continues down the path of inquiry about your “background”. I’ll discuss this further in an upcoming article.

Now, this isn’t going to change the other person, this won’t stop people from asking “Where are you really from?” but what it will do is change how you feel about the interaction. When we focus on telling our story (no matter how the question is asked) and specifically, a part we love about it, it determines how we feel in the conversation.

Instead of answering from a place of anger, we can come from a place of love for our story. Instead of wishing they’d stop asking this question, we can answer from a place of equal power in the conversation. Instead, we can share our story how we want to because we ultimately own it.

What showing up with love for your story does is it brings your story out in the open. Your story becomes part of the everyday dialogue. It isn’t hiding because someone doesn’t know how to clearly express what they mean (often they don’t know what they really mean).

I guarantee you as you practice this (and it will be difficult in the beginning) you will see that the anger will slowly become less and less and the love for your story will intensify. And from there, you’ll love the opportunity to share it when you’re asked: Where are you really from?

You can hear how I handled the conversation over the years in the podcast episode: Where are you really from?