A Way Beyond the Biggest Difficulty in Communication in a Relationship

A Way Beyond the Biggest Difficulty in Communication in a Relationship

The biggest difficulty that arises in communication is, that partners are telling each other their own perspectives. As they listen to their partner’s perspective, they are waiting for their chance to get “air time”, to tell back their own perspective, or pick holes in what they just heard. Because it doesn’t reinforce curiosity or open up options for how the conversation is being done, this often comes across as argumentative and devaluing. Curious statements and curious questions value what the other person is about to say before it is even said.

The reason that counselors, therapists, and psychologists probably ask the most questions and answer the least is because it’s their job to be curious. On top of that, asking one particular kind of question is really important to developing a positive relationship with pretty much anyone. The question is open-ended, validating, and inviting. While they talk about how it helps to be curious with children, I’d like to discuss the advantages of asking curious questions in the context of adult relationships.

Strangers who have just met probably ask curious questions because they’re trying to find out information about each other. If conversation partners who have just met are sexually attracted to each other, they might start asking curiosity questions about each other’s sexual preferences. But imagine what could happen if no curiosity questions were asked (and one person wasn’t attracted to the other, or wasn’t interested in sex) and neither partner opened the subject before trying to dive into bed. For example,

George: “I’d really like to go to bed with you.”

Sandy: “No, I don’t think so.”

G: “Come on. Why not?”

S: “I said no.”

G: “Are you gay?”

S: “I’m so done.”

To get a better idea of how this could go more productively, compare these parts of conversation:

Closed Approach Open or Curious Approach
“Your place or mine? I like you. Do you like me, too?”

“I’m glad we met. Aren’t you?”

“I’m going to a concert on Friday. Would you like to come?”

“Stop saying that. It’s not helping.”

“Are you okay with this?”

“Don’t you remember ….?”

“Do you want to talk about…?”

“I’m gay, are you?”

“What do you think about our time together so far? What would you like to do now?”

“I wonder why we see our pasts so differently.  Please say more about how you see it.”

” I’d like to talk more with you again sometime. What are the chances you might be open to that?”

“How might we preserve the ideas we’re talking about?”

“How is this working for you? What could we do differently for it to work better for us both?”

“More and more people are discovering they are gay or trans. What do you think?”

Open questions over closed questions

It isn’t that open questions are necessarily better than closed questions. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever ask closed questions. But it’s important to realize that open questions are more curious, less confrontational, more collaborative, and, of course, are more open and inviting to an ongoing relationship. In a question like, “What could we do differently for this to work better between us?” open questioning can be used as a tool to repair misunderstanding or conflict. Not only that, both open and closed questions can be combined to inspire some effective communication. That’s because closed questions have a way of directing attention towards particular kinds of information. On that other hand, open questions have a powerful validating influence on a conversation partner at the same time as they open up the playing field to unspoken options. Combining both open and closed questions, for example, we could say something like:

“I’m wondering how you’re feeling about today’s events so far (curious statement). How has today been for you? (curious question that explicitly acknowledges perspective). Who have you spent time with and did you enjoy yourself? (closed question with a very limited number of possible answers). How have those relationships been developing? (open question)”.

An exercise to try, if you’re inspired by the chance to value your partner’s thoughts and feelings, is to stop “telling” as much and make a point to “ask” curiosity questions (using your own words) such as:

  • “What happened?”
  • “How do you feel about it?”
  • “How do you think others feel?”
  • “What ideas do you have to solve this problem?”

Be sure to use “What” and “How” to introduce open questions, but don’t forget that they are used as part of the general flow of conversation which occasionally includes closed questioning. This can be important in maintaining a focus or direction in the conversation.

The following table summarizes some benefits and illustrations of open and closed approaches.

Closed Open
Purpose: Expressing opinion or telling Purpose: Expressing curiosity
Initiating – “Can we talk?” Transition – “What would you like to do now?”
Maintaining – “Can we talk more?” Nurturing – “How is this working for you?”
Telling an opinion – “I don’t like gay men.” Collaboration – “How can we resolve this?”
Stating limited options – “Your place or mine?” Validating – “Tell me more.”
Establishing status – “Would you like to do it?” Information gathering – “How do you feel?”

There are some pitfalls to both major modes of communicating, but this is something to cover in my next post.

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Kim Dawson
Psychologist, PhD.
  VERIFIED EXPERT
Dr. Dawson has devoted himself to helping people who have suffered trauma, loss, or trouble in relationships. His 19 years of psychological counseling experience combined with having lived through these issues in his own life help him to treat people better.

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