Are You Asking Bad Questions?

by Andrea Blundell
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Do you ever feel annoyed when people ask you questions? Or notice others shut down when you ask them questions? Questions are powerful. Good questions help you open up and grow. Bad questions make us shut down or feel ashamed, and can upset others.

So how to know what questions to ask?

What is a good question?

1. A good question doesn’t tell another person what to think or feel.

If you ask a question that does this, it isn’t even a question, it’s an accusation in disguise. Think of the classic, "How could you do that?". The implication is not that you want to know how, but that you want them to know you think they are ‘wrong’, and that they should think so, too.

2. It looks for solutions over blame or reasons.

So instead of, "How could you do that?", you could ask, "What have you learned from what happened?".

3. It is forward looking. It doesn’t raise up the past.

So then we could add on, “‘How are you going to make sure that doesn’t happen again?’.” Or, "What are you going to do instead in the future?”

How and What Over Why

A good life coach tends to avoid ‘why’ questions.

Notice that many of the good questions above start with ‘how’ and ‘what’. These two words tend to look forward and seek solutions.

“Why” questions, on the other hand, tend to look backwards and lead to rabbit holes of self-blame. "Why did you do that?". “Why would you think that?”. The person is left to examine their personality and their past, which is rarely progressive.

Open-ended over yes/no

How and what questions are also open-ended.

The person has a chance to explain themselves or even change their minds as they respond. Their response can become an exploration of sorts.

Yes/no questions, on the other hand, tend to back people into a corner. They have to make a definitive choice even if they aren’t sure of their own thoughts.

It’s also far too easy to manipulate others with yes/no questions. For example, let’s say you want a friend to go out even though you know they are tired. “You don’t want to miss out on being part of a good memory, do you?”. The person will say no, even though the no is for the second half of the question, not the first. Next thing you know they are getting on their coat and not sure why.

Start slow, or start fast?

If you are, say, doing a business transaction, asking the big, hard questions first can be a useful tactic. It throws the other person, leaving them more likely to answer any question that follows.

But when it comes to personal relationships, asking big hard questions first can backfire. The other person can feel overwhelmed or even violated.

The now famous list of relationship-building questions created by psychologist Arthur Aron were designed to understand interpersonal closeness. Starting with reasonably shallow questions then working up to more intimate ones led to participants in studies to like each other more than when just left to ask questions randomly.

How can good questions help my mental health?

  • good questions help you realise what you really want
  • they give you ideas for how to move forward
  • they show you the inner resources you already have.

Journalling can be a great way to use questions for yourself. Write the question at the top of a page, and then let yourself write whatever comes, without judgement.

Or take a tip from Gestalt therapy and use the ‘chair technique’ to play out different solutions to a problem. Put two chairs across from each other. Each chair represents a different choice. So for example, if one chair represents your desire to go to university, the other can represent the choice of going straight into the workforce. You take turns sitting on each chair, responding to the question the other chair asked and asking a question in return, in effect having a productive conversation with yourself.

Therapy and good questions

Therapy is at heart a relationship. And the technique that develops the relationship is good questions, and even better listening.

Your talk therapist is trained to listen acutely, not just to your words, but to your body language. They then ask the perfect question that helps you find the answers and clarity that have long alluded you.

Ready to be asked the right questions that truly move your life forward? Book a session now with the perfect therapist for you.

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