Has it ever felt like pulling teeth getting a clear answer from a person with whom you are trying to have simple conversation? I hear this often in my work with couples and families. The person talking is frustrated because the person listening is not listening, while the person listening is frustrated because the person talking is not making sense (at least to them)! Get two frustrated people in the same conversation and the outcome is not good.
What’s causing the confusion? Most often it is misassumption, either on the speaker or the listener, or both. The speaker assumes the person listening knows what they mean, while the listener assumes they know what the speaker is talking about. What’s missing is some basic understanding.
The cure is a dose of curiosity. Here’s what I mean.
Curiosity questions enhance understanding
If the person talking thinks you are showing an interest in what they have to say they will likely open up even more. However, it is important when showing curiosity it is done sincerely, not in a patronizing or interrogating manner. Let me give you a few examples of how it would look. The curiosity questions are highlighted in blue.
Parent: You are falling behind on your homework again! I thought you said you did your homework?
Parent: I noticed you are falling behind on your homework. Can you help me understand what you think the problem is your having getting it done on time?
Husband: You ran up the credit card for the third month in a row! Don’t you care about our bills?
Husband: Our credit card has a high balance now for three straight months. Can you help me understand from your perspective why the trend?
Notice how the curious approach avoids making assumptions? Instead, it invites the person to give their perspective on the issue. It could be that they will give you an answer that makes sense. For example, the teen may not be doing homework because of a learning problem or low confidence. The wife may explain that the increase in credit card spending is due to a legitimate increase in expenses. In either case, it opens a dialog that can lead to positive solutions.
Curiosity questions can change the tone of a conversation
I use them every day in my work with clients in counseling. Here are a few I think work well in helping people open up.
“That sounds interesting. Could you tell me more?”
“How do you think you want to handle the situation?”
“Could you help me understand what led you to make this decision?”
“I can see you are upset. Can you tell me what you are feeling?”
“What do you need from me right now?”
Curiosity is a cure for confusing communication because it shows respect to the other person. Don’t be surprised when they show you respect back. Practice this art form and you will be less confused and more connected to the people you care about.