Pamela was exasperated as she spoke with her two teenagers. Several times she had asked them to help with minor household matters but they had yet to follow through. Instead they had spent their entire day being argumentative with each other and passive regarding their chores. Impatience and irritability were quite obvious in Pamela’s voice as she asked: “What is wrong with you two? Do you think you can just ignore my wishes all day long? How many times do I have to ask you to be cooperative?”
Leaving them in a huff, she made her way back to her master bedroom where her husband, David, was sitting reading the newspaper. Still not finished with her anger, she stopped in front of him and asked, “Do I have to light a fire under you to make you get out of your comfort zone and help me get things done around here? Are you just going to let the kids grow up to become irresponsible and insensitive?” Getting no satisfactory reply from him, Pamela proceeded with her day as an increasingly agitated mood fell over her.
I suppose we can all relate with Pamela’s frustration. Each of us has had moments when we felt that others seemed unwilling to cooperate on the simplest level. In such incidences it is normal, even healthy, to confront the other persons about the need for consideration. Focus, though, on the questions Pamela put to both her kids and her husband. Do you notice how those questions drove her deeper into her agitated feelings?
A common mistake when confronting legitimate concerns is the asking of cornering questions. These queries are not spoken for the sake of gathering useful information, but they represent a crooked attempt to communicate feelings and needs. For instance, Pamela asked her teenagers: “What’s wrong with you two?” Was she asking the question for the purpose of eliciting an informative response? It is highly unlikely that one of the teenagers would respond with the answer: “Well, Mom, the problem you see before you is one of laziness and insensitivity on our part. We just chose to respond to your request with a flippant attitude.” That would probably be the correct answer to their mother’s question, but it is virtually guaranteed that the conversation would never go to that level of honesty. Besides, Pamela was not expecting an honest answer to that question anyway!
When people like Pamela ask cornering questions, they usually have a reasonable idea that needs communicating, but their reasonableness is lost because the question has a manipulative feel to it. The receiver is likely to respond with either passivity or combativeness. Cornering questions are driven by a desire to produce enough guilt so the receiver will then make a behavioral adjustment. Rarely is guilt induction a successful way to motivate.
An alternative to the practice of cornering questions is to have the communicator flatten out the question into a statement. Go straight to the idea you are wanting the receiver to comprehend and speak it plainly. For instance, Pamela could have said to her girls: “I can tell you’re not thrilled with my request to do some chores, but I’m sticking to that request. I need you to begin now.” When they would give the predictable protest, there would be no need to resort to useless questioning at that point, but she could calmly yet firmly repeat: “ I’m standing by what I have said.” To her husband she might have said: “It appears to me that you are ducking my problem I’m currently having with the girls. I could sure use your support right now.”
Her communication with her family would have been void of crookedness, increasing the possibility of coordinated behavior. By speaking directly to the issue, she would send the covert message that despite her frustration, she could still treat each family member with dignity.
How else would you expect family members to respond when all you do is yell and accuse? Oops…Don’t answer that question.