Monday, 12 November 2012

That is the Question

Some questions make their point rhetorically.  Some require a response.  Others are better left unanswered. 

But can we always tell which is which?   Could Hamlet?

Some questions require an honest answer; a quick or exact reply.  Some need reflection and consideration.  Others lead to avoidance because of a perceived threat. 
And the terrain can be difficult before the added complication of men and women feeling differently about the parameters.   

So let’s start with something easy:  “does my bum look big in this?”  You’d imagine anyone could avoid getting that wrong… but women still complain men with limited emotional intelligence step right into it.

Equally “how do I look?” is a question hoping for encouraging validation – especially if there’s no time left to change clothes -  so the required response is hardly rocket science; albeit superior if you step up with a compliment before the question’s asked.

Some questions arise out of social politeness.  I described a date to some male friends recently and was told “any guy who’s on a date will tell a girl he likes her cooking, her wine, her whatever… whether or not he does”.   “Really?” I asked.  “Yes of course” the men replied in unison.  “If there’s any chance he’ll score it’s in his interest to say the right things.”   Presented as incontrovertible fact, they inferred even the town idiot would know this to be the case; and, by implication, women who didn’t know it to be true were silly. 

Hmm, puts a different spin on early courting flattery, doesn’t it?

What about the question “are you going to be home late?”   Men particularly hate that question.  They don’t want to feel watched or time-controlled.  Fair enough.  I feel the same.  So the clever response is to commit only to a ball-park.  If couples give each other the same freedom in most cases it shouldn’t be an issue.  Or there’s always the option of “don’t wait up”… or “I’ll text you if I’m going to be later than….”… but if you put that out there you better stick to it. 

And that’s the thing about questions: no-one wants to be lied to or misled.  So, except in the case of a parent/child, adult/teenager relationship, if you can’t commit to a real answer then say that: “I’m sorry, but I just can’t answer you right now”… “give me some time please”…  or “when I do know I will tell you”.  Even a reply like “you know that isn’t a fair question”… is better than a lie, a grunt or an intentional obfuscation.

We can use our wits to side-step a question which is too early to be answered: such as “sorry, it’s too late for me to drink coffee…”  Or “I have an early meeting”.   But with the right encouragement the recipient learns she/he has to produce a better performance before gaining your interest. 

That brings us to the point that the fair or appropriate answer to a question is very much related to the familiarity between the parties and the context. 

When you say to your classroom “are you listening?” and they murmur unconvincingly “yes, Miss”, you usually take it as a cue to repeat yourself.  With Little Johnny you fully expect to say “are you listening?” as well as “look at me” many times, because the information will never sink in if he has his eyes glued to the Wiggles.  Yet when you are trying to share sincere feelings with your lover the question “are you listening?”  can also mean “because if you don’t put down that bloody TV remote I will break it over your head!”. 

No wonder couple’s counsellors tell people to repeat back to each other what the other person has just said – because what we say and what is heard are frequently completely different things.  Indeed it’s a technique we always use in business, by writing up the Minutes and Actions generated from a meeting.  So it makes sense to apply to important aspects of our personal lives if both parties desire a mutually comfortable outcome.

Personally, I have the biggest problem with people who are so afraid of their own shadow, or so suspicious of people who can articulate their thoughts and feelings, that they will die in a ditch before they deign to answer a direct question.  If you are a straight-shooter, then people who go to great lengths to avoid the honest unpacking of a situation will not only drive you crazy but ultimately lose your respect.  For in a context where challenge or conflict exists, a refusal to talk, or passive aggressive avoidance upon avoidance, perhaps accompanied by pathetically repeated statements like "I don’t know… I don’t know…  (insert weak shrug)”… is nothing more than an unfair and dishonest power play; made all the more annoying because to deflect weakness or inadequacy they suggest the questioner is at fault for daring to require an answer.  

In that situation I’ve learnt it is important to detach from the need for a response (to, in effect, reclaim your power by letting go of the silent tug ‘o war) and the sooner the better - because if resistance to communication is fierce you won’t get a reasonable or sensible reply anyway.  For the real issue is not ‘the silent treatment’, but lack of respect or insufficient capacity.

By contrast, I thoroughly enjoy social flirtation, even with strangers: “don’t you look lovely today?”… “oh, do I?” they reply, surprised but totally chuffed.  It costs little and makes someone’s day.  I had a chat to an Indian woman in a dry-cleaners last week, asking about her family and her husband, who turned out to have passed away.  When I went back to get my trousers the tag attached said “no charge”.  I was touched, as the questions must have proved comforting. 

Some question-answer-tap-dancing is particularly fun: “would you like to come back to my place?”…  “well actually, I might have missed the last train… what do you think?”   On the dating circuit this banter can keep you at Waterloo Station for ages, by which time you have missed the last train.  And, whatever else evolves, it gives a measure of the guy’s creativity and confidence… not to mention a likely good-night kiss and ongoing suspense.

Just now I did a similar dance with a recruitment agent who I was keen to meet, where (thankfully) at exactly the right moment I slipped in “would it add any value for us to meet face-to-face?”  Bulls-eye.  I now have that appointment in my diary.

I’ve also often enjoyed the ‘question turned around’ - especially Better Midler’s infamous line in Beaches: “ok, enough about me, what do you think of me?”   My old friend Tim says it’s the line from a movie which most reminds him of me.  Hmm.  I hope he means because the character was an actress?  J  But I didn’t ask, as I didn’t want the answer! 

And that’s the thing: don’t ask if you don’t want to know.  Because it is true that if you ask a question (particularly a hairy one) you have to be prepared for an answer you may not like; or at least be willing, in the majority of circumstances, to take the answer on face value, to process and eventually deal with it.  

That said though, the teller of bad news should be prepared to deal with the fact that the listener may be shocked or hurt by the answer… so, if a relationship is respectful or sincere, the divulging of difficult information makes it incumbent upon him/her to share in and deal with the fallout.  Adults don’t dump and run.  It’s immature.  Inhumane.  So I have no tolerance for comments like “if you’re going to over-react when I tell you the truth, I’ll have to lie to you”.  For that is one of the biggest cop-outs of all time... the finely tuned justification of a coward.

I’ll concede a related point, however, which one of my sailing buddies made recently.  He was talking about a friend who went home to confess to his wife about a long-term, extra-marital affair.  The scene was ugly, as you can imagine, excruciating… and, having confessed, the guy could not handle the ensuing consequences.  Putting aside for the moment the question of whether his ‘confession’ was more selfish than constructive… the point my friend made was that her reaction to the devastating news was supposedly “so extreme” that the guy ended up running away from the pressure.  Now that is HIS problem and HIS weakness.  But the sad reality, is that she didn’t then get to heal or experience any deeply felt regret; if it was genuine.  Nor did she get the reconciliation she longed for… because he used the challenging circumstances as an excuse to shut down and avoid. 

Naturally that doesn’t make me like or admire him.  And his shutting down, and ‘playing down’ of the seriousness of the hurt, will certainly make it harder for his wife to forgive him.  Nevertheless we can extract from the tragedy a small but useful point: our reactions will seem in proportion to people who share our feelings or who understand them.  They are likely to seem out of proportion, sometimes unreasonable, to people who don’t. 

That doesn’t make it fair.  The other person may be seriously inadequate when it comes to emotional range or putting themselves in someone else’s shoes… but if they don’t understand it is probably better to acknowledge that and work from there. 

For experts commonly tell us communication will always be enhanced if, in the midst of cut and thrust, we keep asking (or assessing) “do you understand”... or “what do you understand me to be saying?”   Again we can’t force someone to engage, to answer, to take responsibility… but if  both parties are willing to play ball it can be constructive.  The very act of thinking this way too, may help the ‘wounded party’ to moderate their reaction sufficiently to keep him/her in the arena… to at least keep the dialogue going… because, no matter how choppy the water, two people can’t row a boat unless they move the oars in harmony.   And if one collapses and drops the oars, however pathetically, then frankly the partnership is screwed.

Questions used like weapons is another possibility - an extreme example being the bullying tactics of Parliamentary Question Time. 

Nor do I much like the ‘PC gone mad’ approach adopted increasingly in the UK: when the head of a major sporting club is so pressured by the media to assert the moral high ground that when faced with questions about a drunken football fan he completely forgets sensible childhood lessons like “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. 

But like the quintessential question “to be or not to be”… I am interested to pay more attention to the nuances around questions posed and questions left unanswered. 

And what I am looking for, I suspect, will be found like a good Harold Pinter play… in the silences.