In my last article, I discussed a four-step process for having better conversations on difficult matters. Megan Phelps-Roper, a granddaughter of Fred Phelps and former member of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, suggested this process in a TED Talk. The four steps she suggests are most effective for having conversations even on tough topics or in heated moments, are:

  1. Don’t assume the other side has a bad intent.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Stay calm.
  4. Make the argument.

I discussed the first step in my prior article; this article is about the second step—Ask Questions.

Questions Must be Open-Ended

It is important to point out, at the very beginning of this topic, Ms. Phelps-Roper is talking about genuine, open-ended questions intended to stimulate conversation, where the asker does not necessarily know the answer and is seeking to learn something. This is not the time or place for “gotcha” questions. If you have ever seen a witness appear before a congressional hearing, or watched a cross-examination of a hostile witness on a TV show, you know what questions I mean. This process will only work if you are committed to it. These questions are designed for the asker to gain information they did not already have in their possession, not to prove to the other side how they have already won the argument.

One simple way to know if you are asking the proper type of questions is to see who does the majority of speaking. If you are asking a long question which allows for only a short answer, that is probably the wrong type of question. Instead, the majority of the conversation should be the answer. When lawyers are asking questions of their own witnesses at trial (direct examination), they are taught to ask open-ended questions like “what did you do next?” The witness is then able to tell their story, and the focus is on the answer. However, when lawyers are asking questions of the other side’s witnesses (cross-examination), they are taught to ask very narrow questions, preferably with only one possible yes or no answer, like “then you drove the stolen car away from the scene of the crime, didn’t you?” The focus is on the question, and the answer becomes almost a foregone conclusion.

Gaining New Information

There are at least two benefits to asking questions. The first benefit is fairly obvious – you learn new information. In the first column, I used the example of a request by a divorced father to increase his parenting time with the children. Because the parties were not communicating well, and each assumed the other had a negative motive, the conversation immediately devolved into a fight over child support with no discussion of the parenting time father was requesting. By asking honest, open-ended questions, the parties might be able to reach a better outcome. Perhaps the mother is concerned that the father is asking for more time even though he has not exercised all of his allotted visits on Wednesday evenings. A simple question about why Dad wants to change the schedule rather than use the time he already gets might help solve the dilemma. Dad might be struggling with the Wednesday evening visits because he is afraid to leave work early. There have been several layoffs at the company, and he does not want to look like he is slacking off at work, so he gets stuck in rush hour traffic. As a result, he cannot pick the children up until nearly 6:00 p.m. and doesn’t get home until 6:30. Because they are young children, they have a bedtime at 8:00. To have the children back to their mother before bedtime, Dad has to leave his house by 7:30 p.m. So he spends only about one hour of the evening interacting with the kids, most of which is consumed by dinner and bath time. He does not get the chance to read to them, as he did before the divorce, or play any of the games they enjoy on the weekend. Dad feels he is missing out and he is concerned the children are missing out, too. Mom may not have any idea how little time Dad is spending with the children on his evening visit – she only sees that he is usually late for picking them up when he doesn’t cancel entirely. The only way to learn this information is to ask the question.

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Similarly, Dad might benefit from asking questions of his own. Why does Mom oppose letting him keep the children overnight during the week? In his mind, it is because she is afraid of losing some child support and the entire issue is based on her greed. But, if he asks about her position, he might see things differently. Perhaps Mom has a good faith concern that the children start school at 8:00, but Dad lives too far away. He would have to get them up earlier than they are used to in order to get them to school, not to mention the fact that his work also starts at 8:00 and is not close to the school. So he would need to drop the kids off for before school care. Mom is worried they will be exhausted by this and will not do well with the extended days. Dad may not have thought about the logistical issues of the next morning—he is worried about the loss of quality time on his evenings. Only by asking questions can the two sides learn the legitimate reasons the other has for their positions. Also, with the additional information, it may be easier to craft a solution. What if the parents work with the school schedule to identify the days there is no school, or a late start, and let dad have additional overnights then? Dad gets his time, and Mom does not have to worry as much about the impact of the longer school day.

Truly Being Heard

The second benefit is less obvious, but might be even more important. Ms. Phelps-Roper explains it this way – “asking questions serves another purpose; it signals to someone they are being heard.” The mere act of asking the question and letting the other side give the answer communicates our interest in what they have to say. In short, it validates them. Now they can see, tangibly, we are interested in hearing their side of the story, in learning what they know. This allows them to provide more information to us. Sometimes just asking Dad “How would you get the kids to school before you go to work?” will let Dad feel engaged in the conversation. He may come to realize the logistical problems Mom fears, but he was able to participate in the discussion fully. It may turn out that Dad is more willing to agree that what he wants will not work for the children if he does not feel Mom just dictated the answer. He was an equal participant so the result is more valid in his mind.

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In the long run, the conversations will be more productive if both sides believe they will be heard. We may not agree on every issue, but it is much easier to accept a difficult outcome if you feel the process was fair. Asking open-ended questions, allowing the other side opportunity to answer those questions, and truly listening to what they have to say, can help build that fair process.