The Art of Asking Questions

Do you ever just get so damn sick of other people’s opinions? It feels like it’s non-stop, it’s everywhere. Even when you don’t ask for it. Even when you’re just living your life and not bothering anyone. People show up and want to make their opinion your problem.

Maybe I’m especially jaded because I share so much of my life publicly on social media. I open myself up to criticism because of that, and it’s something I understand comes with the territory. I receive thousands of people’s unkind, unsolicited, and unfair opinions about me every day. I hear hundreds of ill-informed and uninformed opinions about issues I care about. I ignore what I need to ignore and engage with what I can. Through this process of learning to navigate these often annoying conversations online, I’ve learned the greatest key to keeping myself regulated and avoiding unnecessary conflict when it comes to the opinions of other people.

Since all of us deal with the opinions of others, whether it’s in our online life or our life in person, I’d like to take a moment to share.

The key? Asking questions.

And yes, I know, that seems obvious. Stick with me. I’m probably not going in the direction you think I am with this. Here’s why I think asking questions is truly transformational when it comes to dealing with the opinions of other people.

#1. Asking questions gives you a pause to regulate yourself.

I am often really quick to jump into an argument with someone who bombards me with a negative or misinformed opinion. I’ll be honest, I get angry. I want to argue. Often, that impulse to argue comes from a dysregulated place. I lead with my emotions, and as a result, I end up behaving in ways I’m not proud of. Stopping to ask a question gives me just a quick pause, a second or two of time to pull myself together. When someone approaches me with an opinion that upsets me, rather than instantly addressing their opinion, I ask them to clarify. I say something like, can you explain further what you mean by x? Or Did I understand correctly that you think y? The truth is, I most likely already understand their opinion. It’s rare that asking this question actually brings new information to light. The point of asking the question is to give them an opportunity to speak again. And in the time it takes them to do that, I have some space between my initial emotional reaction to the opinion and my response. Even if it only buys me a very small amount of time, usually that’s all I need to get myself better regulated.

#2. Asking questions makes the other person have to double down or back down.

When people share a negative opinion with you, whether that opinion is about you personally or about a broader topic, they are communicating something about themselves. I’ve noticed that when people state a negative opinion, they usually do it passive aggressively. Their words have the veneer of being kind or in good faith, but there are often subtle digs or internal biases tucked in there. Asking a question forces the other person to double down on their stated opinion and remove the veneer. And often, I’ve found that when people are asked to explain or clarify their passive aggressive opinion, they end up backing down instead of doubling down. If someone says to you, “I really do respect women, I just think that a woman should not be President. They don’t have the skills needed for that big responsibility,” a good reply is, “Could you tell me what skills you believe women lack that would prevent them from being a good President?” People don’t want to stay the quiet part out loud. They will either have to double down on their original comment and list the things they think make women unsuitable for being President (thus undermining their assertion that they respect women), or they have to back down. Either way, they’ve revealed something about themselves.

#3. Asking questions occasionally makes people recognize their mistakes.

I’ve been to a lot of corporate lunches and dinners where I was the only woman. I’ve heard my share of boys’ club banter. Something I noticed over these meals was how the men often put down their wives in subtle ways with “jokes” they liked to share, and in so doing, they often “joked” about all women. I really enjoyed asking clarification questions, pretending I didn’t understand the “joke” in order to make them explain it. If a man said, “Oh, you know I’d love to stay for another drink but I don’t want to deal with the wife, if you know what I mean. You know how women are.” I’d ask, “Oh? I don’t get it. What do you mean by how women are?” Almost every time, my question was met with a suddenly solemn face, a lot of stuttering, and an apology. Sometimes, it was actually quite endearing to see a man realize that such “jokes” are in poor taste and apologize for doing so. It just takes asking a very pointed question for them to realize their mistake.

#4. On occasion, asking questions does actually help you find common ground.

I know, crazy concept, right? One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that almost every negative, nasty, unwanted opinion that’s lobbed your way is usually born out of someone else’s trauma or pain. Sometimes, you can get to the bottom of that pain and actually form a connection with that person. The other day, a woman in my comment section on Instagram was wildly upset with me for how I am raising my son. She was so angry — slinging insults about my parenting, my morals, and my character. I was hurt, and pretty triggered. She managed to find my shame button and was pushing it over and over. But I didn’t want to argue with this woman. I could sense that something deeper was bothering her, and rather than arguing with her at the surface level, I began asking her questions about her opinion. As we talked back and forth, I learned things about her history. I learned of her trauma, of her pain. I shared some of my own pain, too. Through the conversation, we learned that she and I weren’t so different after all. We realized that it was our different histories that caused us to arrive at opposite opinions on an issue about parenting. We still disagreed, but there was no hostility there. We ended the conversation in a really pleasant way, both of us giving thanks and sending genuine well-wishes to each other. A few simple questions were able to turn the entire conversation around!

It’s always going to be hard receiving unwanted opinions from others. But sadly, I think it’s something we will always have to deal with. I’m learning that asking questions, rather than diving right into an argument, is a great way to stop me from leading with my emotions. It also stops me from behaving in ways I am not proud of. And, every once in awhile, it helps me turn things around and make a genuine connection with someone who began with an insult. Whatever the outcome may be, it is always better to approach these conversations from a calm and well-regulated place. In my opinion, asking questions is one of the best ways to do that.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.


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