Sitting across from my friend, I began to tell her about my predicament. She listened for a few moments before peppering me with questions. With each new inquiry, I had to stop my train of thought and answer her. The easy flow of the initial conversation waned and my thought process suffered. Her questions continued as I began to picture myself on the stand, facing a tenacious prosecutor. All my energy went into answering her questions and addressing her suggestions. I no longer had the space to think for myself.
When we have a problem that needs solving, we go to a trusted friend. If that friend feels the inclination to fix our problem, we often find it unhelpful and take offense to their suggestions. Knowing this about ourselves, why do we do the same thing to another? Solving someone’s else problem feeds our need to be needed, but is it what’s best for the other? “Monkey poaching” or taking on someone else’s problems can be dangerous. One, the advice may not be in their best interest because we do not know what is truly going on inside of them and two, when it is the listener’s solution, the problem holder is not invested. The odds of them following through long term are slim.
What then is the most helpful way to aid another with their dilemma? The answer is quite simple. The most helpful thing we can do is to listen. Listen with clues that we are connected, that we accept where they are, and that we trust them to solve their own problem. We can then offer a sounding board to think out loud.When the person comes upon the answer to their difficult situation, they are amazed and eternally grateful to you. You were an integral part of the solution even though you offered no advice. You gave them something better, a space to talk through their troubles.
Statements instead of questions, allow people to take the conversation were they want it to go. Using door openers, such as “Wow, tell me more about that” or “That sounds tough.” encourages the speaker to continue. We have been trained to see questions as a way to show the speaker our engagement, but after being on the receiving end, I realize that the listener is asking numerous questions to answer their own curiosity, not to help me. Their questions feel overwhelming when I am stressed from an emotional situation and I’m not able to arrive at my own solution.
Using statements in everyday life can have startling results. My son jumps into the car from his school’s carpool line. It is the end of a long day. I immediately start with my questions. “Hey, sweetheart, how was your day?”. “Fine” is his answer. “ How was your test?” “Fine”. I am lucky to get one word answers. I feel the need to continue this line of questions when he offers little information. It becomes a tug of war and both of us grow frustrated.
Is there a better way? I believe there is. Consider the same scenario using statements instead of questions. “Hey sweetheart, tell me about your day.” My son pauses as he thinks. “Well, my math test was easy. I finished quickly. In P.E., we played soccer and I scored a goal. It was an ok day.” Wow, I learned a lot more than “fine”.
We believe we will get more information when we ask questions, but the opposite seems to be true. Questions shut people down and cause them to become defensive. When answering, they use the least amount of words. Statements, on the other hand, open up the conversation and in my experience, allow me to receive information that foster deeper relationships.
When I find myself firing questions, I sit back and form a statement instead. I have been pleased with the results every time. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. Experiment with statements vs. questions and see what happens.