The Importance of Asking Your Partner the Right Questions
Start with the assumption that their intentions are good.
Posted November 26, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Asking questions is a key feature of any relationship, particularly your closest one.
- New research shows that the way you ask a question determines whether you'll get a straight answer.
- To strengthen relationships, ask open-ended questions and avoid questions that imply negative assumptions about your partner.
When you seek information from your partner, chances are you assume that no matter how you ask the question, you’ll get the same answer. You and your partner may even pride yourselves on your ability to read each other’s minds so that the exact words you use may seem irrelevant. However, if you stop and think about these assumptions, it might occur to you that there is more to question-asking as a strategy than you realize.
Perhaps you called home to ask if your partner actually cleaned out that messy hall closet as they had promised to do. It may seem accusatory even to ask this question. However, the task was bound to be unpleasant, and you know that there was an important game that they wanted to watch. This now leaves you with two options: don’t ask and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised vs. disappointed, or ask and communicate your lack of trust to your partner.
If You Ask, Will You Receive?
According to University of Utah’s Eric VanEpps and George Mason University’s Einav Hart (2022), “Ideally, information-seeking questions would produce answers that are true, relevant, and enhance the asker’s knowledge. However, the reality is not so simple” (p. 1). This very observation is enough to reinforce your reluctance to dive in and enhance your knowledge. Luckily, VanEpps and Hart suggested ways that you can steer the question-asking process into one that accomplishes this goal while also preserving the good feelings in your relationship.
In the three-pronged model of question asking that the Utah-Virginia researchers propose, every time you ask a question, you send out certain signals, which, in turn, can potentially increase the likelihood of an answer along with its truthfulness. In large part, the entire process falls into the category of impression management. What may seem like a straightforward question (“Did you clean the closet?”) actually communicates your level of trust or distrust in your partner. It may also have the unfortunate side effect of making it very easy for your partner to slither out of a truthful response.
Breaking Down the Question-Asking Process
From prior research across various domains in the impression management, communication, and deception literatures, VanEpps and Hart present their model as an interactive process. Looking at each component separately, they are as follows:
Asking behavior: A question can vary in its phrasing, timing, and likelihood of being asked at all.
Signals: The asking behaviors send out cues to the other person to communicate messages about what is considered a desirable answer, the knowledge that the asker already has, and the nature of the interpersonal relationship between the two parties.
Answering behavior: As noted above, an answer can either be given or not, and if it’s given, it can be truthful or not.
You can’t control the answering behavior of your partner, but by tinkering with your own behavior, you can ensure that the signals will be favorably received, leading your partner to give you an honest answer. Thinking about questions in terms of these components can help you see both how questions can work or not work for you.
How to Ask the Right Questions
Getting to more specific ideas for improving the way you ask questions, one of the first traps to avoid is to ask a leading question that makes it easy for your partner to respond in a way that they figure will please you. It’s also best not to put a potentially delicate question into a form that demands simply a yes or no response. The authors used the example of a patient in a doctor’s office to illustrate these points. A question such as “You are not in any pain today, right?” is not only leading but also communicates the expectation of a yes or no answer. Instead, the authors recommend that the question be reworded to “What kind of pain, if any, are you experiencing today?”
This scenario provides an excellent illustration of the importance of phrasing. In general, unless the question is something as concrete as “Is it raining?” it’s best to phrase questions in a way that is both neutral and normalizes the possibility that the answer could be one you don’t want to hear.
Looking next at signals of the asker’s knowledge, the authors make the point that people may avoid asking questions that they think will make them look uninformed. Perhaps you’re out with a group of people you don’t know that well, and someone starts talking about a recent news story. You’ve got no idea what actually happened, but it seems clear that you should have. It’s unlikely you’ll ask a question of the group, though you may very well sneak in a quick Google search to find out.
Returning to the issue of questions in relationships, VanEpps and Hart now asked their own big question about how to frame those you ask your partner in order to preserve and maintain good feelings. You may be surprised to learn that questions can themselves serve this purpose, again, assuming you ask them the right way. As the authors noted, “some types of questions… can be used to signal a positive relationship, express interest, and enhance liking… rather than hurting relationships, questions can be used to foster relationships” (p. 3).
First and most importantly, you should avoid questions that have implied within them negative assumptions about your partner. Clearly, your question about the closet would not go well if you begin with, “So, I bet you didn’t have time to clean the closet….”
Second, with this proviso in mind, an open-ended question is most likely to produce an honest answer. Now, you can have confidence that it will be alright to ask your partner about that closet.
Start with the assumption that your partner has the best of intentions in mind, and then in a non-accusatory manner, soften your inquiry by putting it in an open-ended manner as possible. Recognizing that it was indeed an unpleasant chore, you could start by stating, “I know that this was not going to be the most fun job in the world, but I’m hoping you were able to get to it today?” Acknowledging your partner’s discomfort with the whole process takes away their need to be defensive. You may not get the answer you wished for, but it will be honest and, even better, show your partner how much you understand and support them.
To sum up, questions are a natural part of any conversation. As VanEpps and Hart showed, there are ways to put those questions to their best use, not only to get to the truth but to deepen and strengthen your closest relationship.
Facebook image: Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock
VanEpps, E. M., & Hart, E. (2022). Questions and deception: How to ask better questions and elicit the truth. Current Opinion in Psychology, 47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2022.101383