The Question of Questions
How often do we ask a question and receive the response, “I don’t know”?
What is it about questions that sometimes gets in the way of connection?
And how many questions can I ask in a row?
Quite a few is the answer! I am often struck by how we use questions in our interactions. Sometimes we ask questions with the intention of connecting and understanding better.
At other times, we ask to find out what someone knows, or to work out what is happening and even to try to manage behaviour.
I am wary of questions. I recognise that when I am asked “What have you done today?” I can become defensive. I can think that the other person has an agenda, projecting the idea that I have not worked hard enough or done too much!
Now think of the child who is running past with a stick in hand. An adult may ask, “what are you doing with that stick?”.
What does the child think and feel? Am I doing something wrong? It’s just a stick. I’m playing. Likely response? Nothing.
The interaction closes down connection. The adult becomes suspicious (if they weren’t before!) and the child feels annoyed, frustrated, criticised.
What are the alternatives? How about an observation? If the adult had said, “You’ve got a stick!” then there is the option for the child to agree (already you are on the same page) and maybe even elaborate –“Yes! We’re playing fishing!”
A comment is one of the natural ways we start conversations with people around us, yet in our interactions with children, we seem to feel an obligation to elicit information from them. We can be trying to connect but missing them because of their experience of being questioned.
Children are asked questions they don’t know the answers to and see other children answer in the “right” way. They are asked questions to explain their behaviour (how often can adults explain their behaviour without some time to calm down and reflect in a safe space?). They are asked questions to justify their choices, or questions to which their answers could mean big changes in their lives? Some questions have high stakes.
So how about we ask less questions and instead reflect what we see.
We can share our observations with children. There are lots of things to notice:
· Body language, facial expression and movement might give us clues about how they are doing. We might notice that they seem tired or excited. This gives them the opportunity to agree and expand or to tell you that you are wrong! Either way, it shows you are interested and tuning in.
· What they are looking at, paying attention to – it might be a group of people, a game, a character. We can say that we’ve noticed they are interested in a particular show and share what we know or don’t know! This gives children the opportunity to be the expert and also to feel that their passions are important.
· The choices children make. We can see them make decisions and reflect what we saw. I saw that you decided to walk away from that game in the playground. Sometimes we miss children and these noticings give us a way into their world. They might share their reasoning, or simply register that they have been seen.
What about when we do ask questions and the answer is “I don’t know”?
I wonder what this means – is that a genuine don’t have that knowledge or does it mean I don’t want to answer, I am not interested in this or something else?
Sometimes we can clarify our intention: I don’t think I am understanding you at the moment and I want to do better. How can I do that?
Mostly, we simply need to ask ourselves who we are asking the question for? What is the purpose? Do we already know the answer to the question? And are we the ones doing all the asking?
Authentic communication will always be more successful in building connection.