It’s (not) all in the question…

Do you sometimes struggle with getting informations from your children about how their schoolday was, about how they feel or what they’re up to? Sometimes it’s difficult to get real answers. Not only from our children…

If we ask “How was school today?”, “How did you like the film/play?”, “How was your work today?” we usually get short answers like “good/fine/ok” which doesn’t really tell a lot. Sometimes the intonation of the answer helps us to find out the nuance of what the respondent means, but we can avoid the guessing-game by using the right questions.

In her article “25 ways to ask your kids ‘So how was school today?’ without asking them ‘So how was school today?’“, and the follow up post “28 ways to ask your teens ‘How was school today?’ without asking them ‘How was school today?’” Liz Evans gives many great examples of engaging questions to ask our children – but these questions can also be used for engaging with our partners, friends, collegues.

What they all have in common is that they are open questions. – When we ask questions about school, work, training etc. what we really need to do is to engage in a conversation with our children, friends or partners.

Questions like “How was your school/day today?” or “Did you have a nice day at school/work?” can be answered by a single word or a short phrase. The same applies to questions like “How old are you?”, “Where do you live?” etc. These are closed questions: they are easy and quick to answer and the control of the conversation stays with the questioner.

If we use open questions, not only we get longer answers, but we hand the control of the conversation to the respondent. We want our respondent to reflect and think, and he will (most probably) tell us his feelings and opinions.

  In English, open questions begin with what, why, how, describe etc.   What did you like the most at school/at work etc. today?   How did you keep focused on that task?   Describe what this topic means.   Why do you think this task was difficult? The 3:1 formula

During a conversation a great balance is asking three closed questions and one open question. With closed questions we start the conversation and summarize the progress, whereas open questions give us the opportunity to get the other person thinking and continuing to give us useful information.

If we master the art of using the right questions, we’ll most probably manage to get our respondents to ask us open questions too, which will give us floor to talk more about what we want. How? By intriguing them with an incomplete story or benefit.

But it’s not all in the question

One of the common mistakes is to ask questions at a wrong moment, for example when our children just walk out the schoolgate or are busy doing something else, when our partners just come home from work etc..

Most of us need some time to unwind and re-order their thoughts before we are really ready to tell more about our day and engage in a conversation about it. – Some of us can do this on our way home, others need a bit more time.

No matter if we want to know how the school day was or how the meeting went, it is always advisable to create a pleasant context, either sharing a meal or while doing an activity together: cooking, doing craftworks, playing a game, going for a walk or a run etc..

Finding the right moment requires empathy and flexibility: our children will most likely be the most loquatious when we’re busy with something else, when it’s bed time or time to leave etc. It’s not always possible to pause and give our full attention. Therefore it may be a good idea to arrange fix moments during the day where everyone has the time to share and is ready to give each other his or her full attention.

7 replies »

    • Ha, you’re funny, Russel! But all this applies also to adults, partners, friends, collegues… Sometimes we ask a question and don’t really get an answer. Or the answer is not as detailed as we wanted or expected. 😉

  1. A great article and I’m so pleased to see mention of the need for all in the family to be able to share. It is important for our children not to feel like they are constantly being ‘grilled’ as if their every waking moment has to be scrutinised. By sharing our day with them too it makes us all a part of each other’s lives and that’s very healthy I think 🙂

    • Yes, Ken, I think when talking about parenting we often forget ourselves… We too want to be heard and listened to, and I think it’s really not healthy to focus so much on our kids. Of course, they have needs, but so do we. We all deserve attention and time to share what we feel, what worries us, what we experienced etc.. – The earlier our childen learn that everyone has a go to be listened to, the earlier really good conversations will happen in families. And they learn to take turns – also an important skill in conversations 😉

      • Yes and I think it is also really important for our children to feel equally important in our family. We may have different roles and responsibilities but we’re of equal value. By sharing my day, my hopes, my worries with my children (appropriately according to their age and maturity of course) then I am communicating that we share things not because ‘Dad is checking up on me’ but because ‘he wants me to be a part of his life’. I believe this is the way our children grow up to be our friends (and I suspect why daughters are often closer to their mums and sons to their dads – the common interests the sexes share often create just the bond I’m talking about).

  2. Yes, Ken, I totally agree. Sharing with our children shows them that we care adn that we consider they’re very important to us, that we consider their opinion and help very valuable. It also helps them to feel that they belong. – I like what you’re saying about our children being our friends. I had a discussion lately with parents who said that “children are not supposed to be our friends” and I was wondering what kind of relationship they’re having with them…

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