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Answers to Questions Not Asked

Guest Author, Christie Eppler, Ph.D.

[Dr. Eppler is one of the best question askers and listeners I know. I am appreciative for this post and for the way she gently encourages connection and growth. I hope it encourages you to continue to lean in towards connection with others. – Jen]

You know when several of your therapist friends post the same blog entry that it is going to be good (or controversial enough incite an academic riot).Recently, quite a few of my colleagues and friends posted Momastery’s post on relationship-saving questions. The thesis of this entry is simple and elegant: ask rich, thoughtful, caring, and provocative questions.

Instead of asking, “How are you?,” ask more thoughtful questions.

“Did you feel lonely today?”

“Did you feel proud?”,

“How is your mom’s chemo going?”

These are specific and heartfelt queries. They increase intimacy, empathy, and bonds in relationships, factors needed for healthy relationships. As a family therapist, this advice resonates with solid communication research and what we know about family cohesion and health. Yes! Ask good questions.

And…

There will always be times when folks, out of habit or just not knowing what to ask, ask, “How are you?” And, it can be hard to answer that question. It is big, amorphous, and vague. However, we can choose our response. We can answer in a similar vein, “O­h, I’m ok.” or “I’m busy.”

Instead, we can answer as if we were asked the most interesting question in the world.

How are you?

“Oh, I felt a little lonely when…”

“I’m disappointed that my mom’s chemo is making her tired. It scares me.”

“I jumped for joy when I found out…”

It is a good thing when others ask us thoughtful questions, but it won’t always happen. Sometimes, to paraphrase Gandhi*, we have to be the change we wish to see. We can be intentional with our response, even in the face of a non-perfect question.

Before her oral comprehensive exam, a friend was given apt advice: Answer the stumper questions in a way that speaks to what you personally know. The answers to big questions can be steeped in our personal experiences. A broad question like, “What is going on?” can be honed down to, “What is it is like for me?” Personalization helps us connect. It gives words to selves who crave to be shared in relationships. Instead of, “Things are fine” (impersonal), we can say, “I feel/I think…” Then, we are speaking from our own self.

Sometimes, answering vague questions with specific, personal answers happens naturally. Have you noticed that a good friend can ask you a simple question and it starts a whole conversation? But, someone else, someone with whom you have less of a connection, asks you the same thing and it doesn’t really go anywhere. What is the difference? Our response. We may have little control over the questions we are asked, but we do have the ability to act with our answers, our expressions, and in what we share.

The answer is usually both. Seek to ask good questions. Invite those in your relationship circles to ask great prompts (some families use a question jar that they can choose from – be creative!). And, set an intention to answer fully and personally, for all questions.

*Gandhi’s quote: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

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Christie Eppler, Ph.D., is an associate professor and interim program director in Seattle University’s Relationship and Pastoral Therapy, a Couples and Family Therapy program. Dr. Eppler is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT, Washington) and holds an approved supervisor designation from the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT). Her clinical practice covers the complete age span of children, youth, and adults. She has provided clinical services in an elementary school, community-based clinics, and at a college counseling center. The Washington State School Counselor Association (WSCA) named her Counselor Educator of the Year in 2007. She has published in JOURNAL OF MARITAL AND FAMILY THERAPY, among other family-related journals. Her qualitative research focuses on the intersections of spirituality and narrative therapy, resiliency, and issues of social justice. She lives in Seattle with her dog, Luke, a therapy dog with Project Canine. She and the pup enjoy hiking, reading with kids, and napping.

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