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.