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Don’t Ask Questions You Don’t Want the Answers To

LearnAlyssa Davis
Photo by Kenan Buhic on Unsplash

Photo by Kenan Buhic on Unsplash

"Silence is a greatly underestimated source of power. In silence, we can hear not only what is being said, but also what is not being said. In silence, it can be easier to reach the truth." — Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review

why bother asking?

“Hey, how’s it going?” A standard English greeting. Americans say some form of “how are you” almost as frequently as, if not more than, “I’m sorry” and “that’s amazing”. It the most common phrase we use at the office: with colleagues, clients, and most everyone we meet or greet. We use this phrase mindlessly, without any real intention behind the ask.

Let me back up. I’m from the United States, born and raised, currently living in New York City with six Russians. Each roommate rotates in and out about every month, and over the course of the year, I’ve had about 20 roommates in total. I’ve stopped keeping track at this point. Out of all 20, I have been the only native English speaker. I’ve learned to be selective about what I say since speaking freely tends to mean repeating long phrases, and if we’re being frank, half of the things I say aren’t worth repeating – hence this article. You learn this quickly when every fifth sentence is followed by “can you say that again, but slower?”.

I come home from work late one night and waltz into the living room.
Me: ”Hey, how’s it going?”
Roommate: ”Good, you?”
Me: ”It was good. Long day teaching, and I’m pretty exhausted. All in all no complaints though. You?”

And there it is – the reason I’m the actual worst. I asked my roommate how she was with no real concern about the answer, seeing as I didn’t listen to what the answer was in the first place. The best part? She called me out. She says to me, “You know it’s funny because you already asked that, but a lot of Americans do this we’ve noticed. They use the phrase as a greeting but don’t actually care what the answer is.”

Okay, slap in the face received, but she’s right. How often today have you asked that and meant it? I mean, how often have you asked that considering that maybe the person is having the worst day ever, and still wanted a truthful answer? My guess is not very often. Why even ask the question? Why waste your breath on those three words if you don’t care what the answer is? Habit. That’s why.

Studies show that people spend 60% of conversations talking about themselves. Six. Zero. Over half. News flash: most of us are a little narcissistic. And talking about ourselves feels good. To take it one step further, researchers from the Harvard University Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab found that “talking about the self is intrinsically rewarding, even if no one is listening.” So, unfortunately you do want to talk about yourself and whether your listener cares or not is entirely up to them because you’re getting an intense burst of activity in your [where exactly is your brain lighting up? Prefrontal cortex?] with or without them. It’s science.

Think Before You Speak

Research spearheaded by Andreas Lind, out of Lund University, found that many of us speak and then think. Big shocker there I’m sure. Lind hypothesized that we process what we are saying in part by hearing what we’ve said. His experiment had participants take a Stroop test – a classic psychological exam in which the name of a written color is shown to a participant in different ink than the name of the color. The participant is then supposed to say the color of the font, not read the word itself. For instance, “green” would be written in the color grey and participants would be expected to say “grey”. They then heard their responses played back via headphone, and the responses were recorded so that throughout the test, Lind could playback the wrong word from time to time. After hearing a manipulated word, participants would be asked what they had just said. At the conclusion of the test, they were then asked if they had detected the switch. When the wrong word was played back within 5-20 milliseconds of participants saying the word, the change was undetected more than two-thirds of the time.

So what does all this mean? In 85% of the cases in which the manipulated word went undetected, participants accepted that they had said the wrong word, showing that people listen to their voices in part to understand what they’re saying. Have you ever started a sentence without any real direction, hoping it’ll find its way? There it is. You’ve proven Lind’s hypothesis.

Out of the Mouth of Babes

We have to go back to channeling our inner child. Young children, under the age of 4, are selective about their word choices because communication is direct and results-oriented.

“I have to pee.” (Gets you to the bathroom.)
“I want my mom.” (Gets you your mom.)
“I’m hungry.” (Gets you your meal.)

Children’s language revolves around what they want or what they’re thinking at the exact moment that they’re feeling it. They say what they mean, and they say it wholeheartedly. If you want to know, and I mean genuinely want to know, the answer to, “Does this make me look fat?”, ask someone under the age of 4.

Now, I’m not suggesting we flip a switch in the office and start telling everyone how we feel at every opportunity. What I am suggesting, however, is that it’s worth slowing down and thinking about how we engage with people. Why not replace the routine “How are you?” with “It’s nice to see you” or a simple “Hello.” Just make sure that the next time you ask someone how they are, that you stop, look them in the eyes and wait for the answer to your question.