Asking questions

Let me know if you have any questions!  Talking about questions, there is a lot below on this!! The material in this series of 22 (of which this is number 10) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

Asking questions

It isn’t always easy to talk about our feelings, worries or problems. In particular it can be difficult to get started. If you think that someone has something on their mind that you could help them with, a good way to start is letting them know that you have the time to listen and are prepared to give them the time and attention that they may need.  As nice as it is to be able to help, there are times when you may well have more important things to do or to think about. It is more useful not to offer to listen than to offer and then not listen, giving all those little unconscious messages that show you would rather really be somewhere else.

‘But what,’ you might wonder, `if they dry up and don’t seem to know what to say?’

It is a natural response, in this situation, to feel that you want ask questions. After all, asking questions helps the flow of conversation.

Question may well be appropriate at such a time – however, there are useful and not so useful questions to use.

Questions can be either closed questions or open ended questions.

By asking open-ended question rather than closed, directive ones, you are firmly leaving the responsibility for the feeling or the problem with the other person, rather than trying to solve it for them.  Your open-ended questions, coupled with an accepting and attentive attitude, convey your genuine interest in helping them without taking over or prying into things they may like to work through on their own.


Here are some of the less useful reasons questions are usually asked:

1     To fill in silences that the listener finds uncomfortable.

2     To confirm something the questioner is thinking.

3     To veil some emotion or need of the questioner, e.g. `Why are you doing that?’ instead of `I don’t want you

to do that.’

4     To satisfy the questioner’s own curiosity or need to know.

These reasons usually conceal a statement that the person isn’t willing to state out loud, or may not be aware of.

Look for the statement underlying your question. It is usually better to make a statement (`I want some peace!’) than to phrase it as a question. (`Do you have to make so much noise?’)

Emotional Flooding

There is another good reason fore not asking closed questions of someone who is experiencing a problem and is emotionally upset. when we are upset, our emotions tend ot take over the thinking part of our makeup. The more upset we are, the more difficult it is to think straight. When we are upset we are emotionally flooded.   Closed questions, or questions that demand specific information in answer, address just that thinking side of the mind which is being flooded out by emotions.  The result is either that the emotional temperature can rise as the upset person struggles to find the answer and/or they are taken off track form the real issues by trying to answer well-intentioned but irrelevant questions.

It can be a painful realisation for well-meaning people to discover that their best efforts to help are only making matters worse.


Learning from past experience

Young children don’t make mistakes or fail at things – they do something, then do it again and again, finding new ways if the old ones don’t work, until they have got it how they want it.

This is how the learn to crawl, sit up, walk, talk and achieve many of their early skills.

Children learn about failure. They learn because of the expectations placed on them by adults, and sometimes by older children, and the negative messages that get when they don’t meet up to those expectations. As they get older they may start to have unrealistic expectations of themselves, wanting to do things that their bodies or minds can’t achieve.

Our society is very goal and achievement-oriented and there is not much emphasis placed on enjoyment while getting there. We want to `be it’ or `have it’ now.

It is easy to love perfection and the way things should be. The real test is to feel comfortable and content with the way it is right now. It is the obstacles I meet that allow me to expand, to stretch my `lovingness’ to include even that.

When we make mistakes and feel we have failed, we quite often get completely side-tracked and use up energy feeling guilty or trying to correct the mistake. If we do get side-tracked in this way we are no longer on our path, unable to go to the next place that we want to be. Many people spend a great deal of time `lost’ in this sort of way.

If we remove the negative emotional attitudes that we have towards our failures and mistakes, we can free a great deal of energy. This we can then use to look constructively at what happened and gather information that can help us change what we do in the future.

If we allow ourselves the freedom, we can learn much of great value from where, how and when we went astray.

Fear of failure

If we learned that it was not all right to fail, this attitude can have a profound effect on what we allow ourselves to do in the future. Fear of failure can prevent us from even trying to get our needs met or attempting new things, thus severely limiting us as human beings.

In our education system, where only one person can come `top’ it is very hard for children not to pick up negative attitudes and feelings about `getting things wrong’.  If you were told that you had to take an exam at the end of this  course (which you don’t!) most of you would feel some level of anxiety about it. The learning process would be changed for you and probably not in a very constructive way.

Children do not need to be taught how to learn, develop and explore the world – they are born with these abilities.  The concept of failure however, is one that is learned, and one that affects us all through our lives.


What might stop us listening?

For most of us, real attentive listening is a skill we have to learn and practice.  The reality is that we may fumble along at it, jump in and ask questions, give advice instead of remaining quiet and find listening well very difficult.  The old habits die hard.  Many  people have not had much experience of listening or being listened  to  and so  have not had opportunity to learn the skill.


We have all had plenty of experience of not being listened to.  At times, even those we are lisening to will contribute to how hard we find it.

‘Please just tell me what to do’ is a common plea, and not just  from young children …


Go easy on yourself

Are you prepared to go easy on yourself and learn these new skills bit by bit without worrying that you are not doing it right?

It is useful to remember that we are all doing the best we know how at any particular moment. The fact that you have begun to learn a new way does not take away from the fact that when you are at home in your normal situation you react in the way you `know’ in that situation. It is OK to be a good enough listener bit by bit remembering to try things differently and learning from the nice and not so nice examples you experience.


Deception of familiarity

We tend to think that we know the people we spend a great deal of time with, very well – our colleagues, partners, children, etc.  This maybe true, but quite often, when we think we know someone well, we stop updating our information about them, and forget that people are constantly developing and changing.

Take some time to stand back a little and really notice that adults and children you spend a lot of your time with.  Look at them as if you were seeing them for the first time….


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

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