We’ve all heard that one of the key factors in successful, healthy relationships is good communication. Through communication, we can clear up misunderstandings, share our feelings, offer support, and learn more about our partners and ourselves. Magical things can happen in a relationship when communication is good.
Traditionally, people are given two pieces of advice when it comes to improving the communication with their partner. First, we grow up being told “honesty is the best policy”. In relationships this generally boils down to not lying to each and being open about your thoughts and feelings. The other tidbit of common advice is to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. This puts you in a place of ownership of your feelings and helps prevent your partner putting up their defenses against those “you” statements, which are often seen as a verbal assault. While these suggestions are valid and definitely helpful in effective communication, I like to encourage people to take it a step further. My challenge to you, and the people I work with, is to avoid asking each other questions. I know this may seem counterintuitive and there are times when you have a legitimate need to ask a question in order to gain information or to understand your partner better (“How did you feel you feel when your boss said that to you?”), what I have noticed is that often people ask questions for other reasons.
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People will often ask questions to which they already know the answer as a way of manipulating the situation or to indirectly communicate their true feelings. When you ask your partner something like, “Is this your coffee mug on the table?” it’s likely that you know whose mug it is already and that you are asking because you would like him/her to put the mug in the dishwasher. Phrasing your needs in the form of a question is a form of passive aggressive communication. In my relationship, the most common example of this is occurs when either my husband or I says, “What do you want to do about dinner?” It would be much more straightforward and assertive to simply say, “I am really tired and don’t feel like cooking. I’d like to go out to eat tonight.” This leaves no question of our intentions or needs and tells the other what we would like to happen in order to meet our needs.
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Another example of questions being a form of ineffective communication would be if, after an argument, you ask your partner, “Are you ok?” Think about what that question is really communicating. Are you worried that your partner is hurt or upset by the conversation? Do you feel guilty for some hurtful comments that you made? Instead of asking the question, imagine what would happen if you simply stated your thoughts, i.e. “I feel bad for what I said and I am worried that I hurt your feelings.” The outcome of this conversation is likely to be quite different than the one that started with, “Are you ok?”
So, see if you can go on a question sabbatical and avoid asking questions for a week. Be careful to pay attention the hidden meaning beneath your partner’s questions as well and respond to the meaning beneath the question rather than the actual question. Notice how simply stating your thoughts and feelings brings clarity and resolution.