One Question To Get An Honest Answer… No Matter How Uncomfortable Or Scary The Topic

Posted: September 7, 2012 in For Educators, For Parents and Guardians, My Thoughts...
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Whether it’s your own child, or a student of yours, the following is an example of a way of asking a question that can lead to a profoundly positive change in your relationship… and it can be used with all of the most uncomfortable, scary or emotionally charged issues. It’s not soft and it doesn’t lessen your authority, in fact, it magnifies your authority and role models courage… and more importantly, it gets the result you want:

“So, I’m going to ask you a pretty direct question, and it’s not to make you uncomfortable or because I want to tell you what to do or what not to do, I just want to be sure that you fully understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.” 

Obviously, it’s a long lead in to ask a question, and it’s geared more towards adolescents than younger children, but there is a point. And while you may choose different words that sound more natural to you, when you approach a provocative topic in a thoughtful and purposeful way, you’re truly maximizing the likelihood of getting an honest answer and ending up with a strengthened relationship.

I’m going to break down the elements of the above sentence to illustrate the purpose of each word.

“So, I’m going to ask you a pretty direct question”– This sentence prepares the child for what will be a more serious topic, and it guides them into a more appropriate state of mind… without scaring them or making them feel too cornered.  Though you are essentially cornering them into a conversation they most likely don’t want to have, this preface definitely eases the blow a bit. It simply shows that you respect them enough to not blindside them.

“… and it’s not to make you uncomfortable”– This disarms them by showing care for their feelings. And it shows understanding, because they most likely will feel at least a little uncomfortable (just as you will). It also begins to clarify that your intentions are good ones, and are not to “catch” them.

“… or because I want to tell you what to do or what not to do”– This portion is very important developmentally. When talking to an adolescent, you’re talking to a young person who is growing into independence. One of the most important needs of a teenager is to feel as if they have more control over their lives than when they were younger, and by stating that your intention IS NOT to control, you prevent them from being able to accuse of of trying to control them… which happens easily and often with teens. It shows that you respect them enough to make decisions for themselves which will make it safer for them to be more honest with you… even though underneath the surface, you may be afraid of what they may be doing. It simply increases your chances of having a conversation… instead of a fight.

“i just want to be sure that you fully understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it”– This is your big dismount. By saying these words you’re showing respect for their rights to make choices for themselves while also conveying your authority, life experience and wisdom. You’re essentially telling the child that your goal is simply to arm them to make the best decision for them… without telling them what to do. These words will make them feel guided and cared about… and not minimized or controlled. And these words may seem sneaky, because they are in a sense, but they’re sneaky in a way where both parties win. You win as the adult by making it difficult for the child to refuse to talk or to be honest… and your child wins because they are being inspired to be more thoughtful and reflective about their choices.

Whether you’re asking your student or child if they’re using drugs, having sex, involved with a gang, failing their classes, bullying others or doing any other potentially risky or hurtful behavior, when you choose your approach and words deliberately, you’re more precisely targeting the best possible results. As the adult, you may not want to have to be so careful, and you may just want to ask what you want to ask without seemingly “pandering” to your teenagers volatility, but if you want genuine honesty and calm communication, taking a little extra time and putting in a little extra thought will get you the results that you want far more often.

And once you get through your opening, and the safe, honest, respectful exchanges begin to flow, just keep the same principles in mind… choose your words thoughtfully and respectfully… and then listen well. Regardless of the answers you get from your child or student, whether they’re comforting illustrations of good decision-making, or admissions of dangerous or unhealthy decision-making… just be sure to honor your intention of arming them with the insights and information they need to make the best possible choices, and resist, with all your might, the temptation to overpower.


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