Using “What” and “How” Questions

Contributed by Jody McVittie

Words. Even though much of how we communicate (more than 70% in some studies) is through our non-verbal expression, words still make a difference. We all know from experience that what we “send” is not necessarily what the receiver “hears.” Another way to think about words is to ask, “What is the word inviting from the other person?” What kind of pathway is opening or closing in response to the words I’m using?

As parents and educators we often find ourselves in the position of wanting to guide or teach young people. We want them to grow up to be healthy, considerate and capable adults. We want them to be able to think and use common sense. One way to help young people grow these abilities is to practice asking instead of telling. Even though the words are similar, the impact is very different. When we tell our child what to do, they don’t have to think. When we ask, their brain has to start moving.

Even the words we use in asking can make a difference. Try this with a friend or colleague or even your child:

Ask her to try an experiment with you. Ask her to fold her hands together by lacing the fingers between each other. (You can do it with her). Then ask her, “What did you do?” She will probably tell you that she put her fingers together. Ask her, “How did you do it?” She will probably give you a bit of a crazy look and tell you that she just put her fingers together. Finally ask her, “Why did you do it?” Most likely, she will tell you that it was because you told her to.

Notice that when we ask people “what” and “how” questions that they will often respond from a place inside themselves, an “internal locus of control.” They own their own behavior. “Why” questions often (not always) have us looking outside ourselves for explanations. We get defensive. “He made me do it.” “She started it.”

Here is are two challenges for this week:
Start listening to how your children respond to your “asking” and “telling.” Are they using an internal locus of control – or looking outside for the source of their behavior? What makes them think?
Practice “what” and “how” questions. How long can you engage your child by being curious and using questions? (Remember to really listen to the answers.) Here are some of my favorites:
* What is your plan?
* How do you see that working?
* What was our agreement about (the dishes, the laundry, the garbage, media time)?
* How do you think (person) might feel about that?
* What else might work to solve that problem?
* What needs to happen before you go (play, watch a movie, visit a friend)?

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