Are You Asking Your Partner the Right Questions?
Genuine questions sustain intimacy and longevity in our relationships.
Posted February 17, 2021
We can never fully know the depth and mysteries of another but we can be curious enough to spend a lifetime getting to know them. If our partner "bores" or perplexes us, we should ask ourselves not what is wrong with them, but what is happening within ourselves that interferes with our natural curiosity and desire to learn. Humans have developed as a species because of curiosity, so why is it that in our most significant relationships we don’t ask more and better questions of each other? And why is it that the questions we do ask are often misunderstood and end up making things worse?
Many of us have been put off asking questions because we have learned early on that curiosity is "rude," "nosy," "unkind" or "dangerous." As we grow, our childlike hunches and hypotheses about the world solidify into grown-up "facts" and we find it difficult to ask questions because a voice in our head tells us we already know the answer. Or, even worse, that we should know the answer, and so asking risks making us look naïve or stupid. Then, when we do finally ask, questions cause us problems. We notice people get defensive, confused, embarrassed, withdrawn, or angry. So we stop. Instead, we relate to others through our opinions and assumptions, believing we "know" people well and that our best or most helpful contribution in a conversation is a challenge, a suggestion, or a solution. Or else we think that the withholding of questions makes us "sensitive" or "polite." Yet when questions are absent in a relationship, the potential for conflict, misunderstandings, disengagement, and separation increase. We feel the relationship has become predictable, shallow or has "run its course" — and so we part without ever discovering the depthful beauty of our once loved ones.
Good questions revive and sustain relationships yet most of us have become averse to and unskilled at asking them. To bring the art of inquiry back into our lives (for as children we were all effortlessly artful), we need to overcome our instinctual fear around uncertainty and difference and we need to learn to distinguish between genuine questions that "work" and false questions that don't.
The most significant reason our questions don't work or "land" well is because we are not clear or honest about our intent.
There are four core intentions that propel our questions:
- To suggest: Shall we go to the cinema? What about chicken for dinner tonight? How about we go to France for our holidays?
- To provoke: Why did you make that stupid comment at dinner? When are you going on that diet? Why are you so afraid of making a mistake? Have you forgotten my birthday?
- To clarify: What time will you be home? Is it my turn to pick up the children? Did you say you would mow the lawn today or tomorrow? How much more would you like?
- To understand: What’s happening between us right now? What does love mean? What do you dream about? What assumptions are we making about each other? What else is possible? How has it come to be this way?
Most of the time, our "questions" fall into categories 1 to 3. They come as suggestions, provocations or clarifications that are consciously or unconsciously intended to confirm our beliefs and preferences and to progress action in the direction we want it to go. Provoking and clarifying questions can seem genuine. However, if you listen carefully you will hear how often these "questions" are motivated by resentful, vindictive or mere pragmatic self-interest and not by a desire to discover or understand. As such they are false or weak questions that generate little or no insight about the other.
Genuine questions that seek understanding are inspired by a longing to be in relational communion, which involves reciprocal intimacy, sharing and a willingness to be vulnerable. Yet such questions are hard to find because, as I have said, we were long ago schooled to forget about questions and the art of pondering, asking and receiving. Instead, we are taught to focus on knowing, telling and answering.
To begin the search for and to find questions that cultivate insight, understanding and relational communion we need to a) accept that we don’t know, b) remain curious about this not knowing, and c) resist trying to control what arises out of our inquiry. In other words, we don’t try to squeeze emerging insights into our familiar knowledge scapes. Often we won't know what to "do" with our discoveries — and that is OK. Giving ourselves time to make sense of and integrate new knowledge is important. Sometimes this simply involves rest and sleep, during which our unconscious will do some of the integration for us.
As well as clarity of intent, understanding the fear that accompanies both asking and revealing can help us to cultivate kindness and patience in the moments when we fall out of inquiry and back into defensive solace. Here we learn that such fears are not our fault – they are the consequence of inherited instincts that still respond to uncertainty and exposure as threat. This "better be safe than sorry" survival reflex can be useful in life-threatening circumstances but it does not support exploration, innovation, and growth. Instead, we react to people and situations as we have learned to react, not stopping to discover what is new and distinctive in each encounter, nor how we could adapt. Additionally, we possess an instinctual aversion to being different from our group because difference risks rejection. And so we have learned to hide our unique experiences and live in secrecy. Genuine questions are revealing and many of us fear being exposed for who we really are. Yet it takes tremendous energy to hide our truths — energy which is better spent exploring them.
Our fear of uncertainty and rejection, like all threat brain emotions are useful in the right circumstances. Yet in our relationships, they are barriers to intimacy and communication. If we "know" the answers and cannot be vulnerable we convey to the other that we are superior to them, which cannot be the basis for healthy growth or longevity in any relationship.
Good questions gently touch and unfurl our core beliefs and invite us to explore alternative truths. They linger in the mind and the body and we return to them time and time again. We learn to ask, What if? How come? What else? In our relationships, good questions keep us absorbed and engaged. They are compelling, carry possibility and energy and evoke yet more questions. Genuine questions, supported by clarity of intent and compelled by a desire to understand, are not dangerous, they are an animating force that reminds us we are vital and alive.