Conversation First-Aid: Balancing Questions & Statements

I’ve talked in the past about conversations being like driving a car: Know where you want to go before you get in; keep the car on the road rather than sliding off into a well-worn emotional ditch.

This time we are talking about fine-tuning those skills. Rather than just keeping the conversational car on the road or not, this is about making those subtle adjustments you do with the steering wheel to keep the car in the center of the road, or to use another analogy, the flick of the thumb gamers instinctively do to keep their character moving forward and out of harm’s way.

If we were to create a periodic table of conversational elements, questions and statements would be at the top. Yes, 95% of communication maybe non-verbal, but these are the foundation from which the other verbal elements derive. Here’s the anatomy and psychology of questions and statements:

Questions

So why didn’t you call?

When are you getting back?

Did you stop and buy milk?

Questions are vital elements of conversations because they enable us to split problems, emotions, whatever, into smaller pieces – How did you feel? What happened next? Why couldn’t we do…? — that help us understand not only what is or what has happened, but how the other person thinks and feels, what makes them tick. Good questions lead to greater intimacy.

But as you read the questions above, you no doubt automatically found yourself imbuing them with some negative emotions. Even without other non-verbal cues, you instinctively installed a voice-tone and an emotion: curiosity, scolding, micromanaging, and likely your anxiety went up a tick. Why? Because questions easily trigger childhood stuff, mental and emotional memories of a parent looming over us and wagging a finger: Why are you late? Did you do your homework? Did you hit your brother? They quickly evoke criticism and tension — that something is wrong, that you did something wrong, that you are not being honest.

These reactions are hardwired into our brains. Yes, while voice-tone is important — a “What’s up?” from a friend is not the same as a stern-sounding, “Where have you been?” from your boss — questions by nature always have an edge to them, always carry their own emotional potency.

Which is why, like that sharp knife, you want to be careful when using them. Don’t stack them up: A bunch of questions in a row starts to feel like an interrogation that gets worse when you throw in a critical tone of voice. Ask, pause, listen, and be careful how you sound. 

Use “Why?” judiciously. While ”Why” may be the ginzu-knife for getting to the heart of the matter, the word, even when accompanied by a gentle voice-tone, can immediately put others on the defensive, triggering old childhood feelings of being put on the spot, overwhelmed, and stupid.

So, think about questions as knives that can split, separate and clarify, but also realize that they raise anxiety. Watch how the other person is reacting — if glazing over, or more likely scrambling or getting emotional and sounding defensive — the conversational car is going off the road. It’s time to stop the questions and shift to statements.

Statements

In contrast to questions that cut, split and raise the conversational temperature, statements sooth, calm, join. They are our verbal hydrogen, the primary element of our communication, our stories, the narrative of our lives that we tell ourselves and eventually others – I feel this, I did that, this is what happened. The most ideal conversation, perhaps, would require no questions: The questions arise when the conversation is incomplete or emotionally veering off-course.

It’s always good to use statements as conversational starters — think the old topic-sentence of the beginning of a paragraph that your English teacher always talked about: I want to talk about… The reason I’m bringing this up is because…. Statements like these let you set the tone and define the context, and by doing so help the other person know the point of the conversation and what she needs to most focus on.

But you can use statements in the heat of the moment as conversational first-aid, a subtle moving of the steering wheel to lower the emotional temperature. When your partner is getting defensive and emotional, lower the heat by not only slowing down and listening but also making a statement – I know you feel upset, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, I said that because I was worried that…. 

Statements that work best in these first-aid situations are those where you incorporate “I” – I feel, I think — rather than “You” — you are, you do. Combine them with soft emotions – I’m worried, hurt, sad, concerned, scared — rather than hard emotions — I’m angry, pissed off, frustrated, fed up — which generally raise the emotional temperature.

If you want to learn to steer your conversations better, you can start with lighter, easier ones — with store clerks, with acquittances — the equivalent of driving around the empty-mall parking lot on a Sunday — and then move up towards the heavier traffic, the more difficult conversations — those with parents, partners, bosses. Like learning to drive a car, it’s not about personality, but all a matter of practice.

Ready to get behind the wheel?

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