So far, we’ve explored the inappropriateness of certain questions related to marital status and children. This series could probably go on for weeks addressing other specific questions that should never be asked, but I’m gonna just jump to some alternatives that will hopefully work both for issues raised in this miniseries as well as those unaddressed Questions You Should Never Ask.
Part Three: The Thoughtful Alternative (variations include The Golden Rule and “You mean everyone’s journey isn’t just like mine?”)
“As far as people talking, people talk. Most don’t really know what to ask so they ask the most obvious question. We live in a comparative society: I am married why aren’t you, we have kids why don’t you?”
Let’s begin here. Each of us has a story. Some stories are linear while others have a lot of twists and turns. Some have just a few defining moments and others are littered with life-changing events. We do not all have the same benchmarks and even when we share one or two, we don’t usually reach them at the same point in time: just like no two people are alike, no two stories are alike. When engaging with others, it’s important to have an appreciation for their stories and realize that it’s okay if they don’t look similar to ours. Those differences are what make learning about other people exciting! Stop comparing and start exploring!
How can we interact with others with sensitivity and thoughtfulness? How do we converse with people without a “your life should look like mine” undertone? Consider purpose and perspective.
Purpose. People ask questions for one of two reasons: either they are making small talk or they are trying to learn about the other person. Content covered by small talk should stay shallow, matching the motivation for the conversation. Stick to inconsequential subjects. Discuss the weather, talk about what you did that day, the crazy thing you saw on your way to work, whatever…this should help you avoid stumbling into the personal and delivering an accidental verbal drive-by. On the other hand, if your desire is to go beyond small talk, perspective is vital.
Perspective. Unless we know a person’s story, we cannot fully understand how they will react to certain triggers or how our questions or comments may cause pain. When there is genuine interest in someone else’s life, subject matter can and should get weightier. In those early interactions, however, ask questions that allow the other person to maintain control of what and how much is shared. “What are your hopes for your future?” “Who are the most influential people in your life?” “What is one of your defining moments?” Broad questions allow the answerer to take the conversation in whatever direction they are most comfortable. If and when they want to share their unmet desire for a spouse, or their struggles with infertility, or their decision to remain single, or their experience as a foster parent, or any other sensitive piece of information, they can do it on their terms. Remember, taking time to listen and show genuine interest is an investment in that other person – an investment that most of us require before throwing open the gates to our most closely guarded places. Give people the same considerations you would like to receive. If and when the other person opens the door, you can let your more specific, gently probing questions be informed by what they share.
This type of communication is different; it regards the other person more highly than the mere accumulation of information. It requires more effort, concentration, thoughtfulness, and creativity. It takes longer. It’s also a safe bet that the exchange will be far more rewarding for both parties.
Here is your official invitation: start asking the questions you should ask. Make the investment and reap the unbelievable and extraordinary dividends!