Can a Simple Question Cause a Communication Breakdown?

Communication Breakdown

by guest blogger Pam Fullerton, psychotherapist and writer

Have you ever experienced the following in a relationship? Everything is going well, you feel connected, you’re enjoying one another, and then…Boom! Suddenly, you’re in a full-blown argument. And what’s worse, you didn’t see it coming.

I’ve personally experienced this in my marriage. I feel sad and frustrated when it happens and sometimes, not always, it takes a bit of time to get back to the place when we’re enjoying one another again. I see this happen with couples that I work with as well. Communication in a relationship can break down fast. But why? What happened?

One reason the unexpected argument can occur is when a seemingly innocuous or innocent question is asked. Can conflict ignite by asking one simple question? The short answer is yes. But how can asking a simple question ignite conflict in a relationship? It’s because asking a question can have many implications! Communication problems vary but this challenge is one that we rarely talk about, and yet it causes conflict all the time.

It’s complex, so much so that I hesitated to blog about it—but I’m going to give it a shot! Have you ever asked a question only to be met with one of these responses: “Is that what you think?” or “What do you mean by that?” or “Why did you ask me that?” or your partner simply becomes angry, defensive or agitated.

The problem is that there are times when asking a question is not meant to gain understanding. There are times when asking a question is (intentionally or unintentionally) emotionally charged, a manipulation of the other person to shift to our way of thinking. Or a question is asked with judgment. Or it is asked with an agenda. For example, if there are issues of distrust, a question can seem more like an interrogation. Or questions may be structured in a particular way to get the answer that you want. Or maybe you are simply seeking more information but the person on the receiving end becomes defensive. Yikes! Now what do we do? Don’t worry, all of us communicate in this way from time to time.

Here’s an example of how asking a question can be interpreted in different ways: One may ask the question, “Do you love me?” Seems like a reasonable question, right? Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Here are a couple of ways (and there are most likely more) that this question can be interpreted. First, it can be interpreted as an accusation, meaning that person on the receiving end of the question may hear it as you are “questioning” their love for you. Another person may hear it as a “pushy” question, thereby forcing an expression of love or as a demand to express love. The person asking the question may simply be feeling isolated or has had a bad day and wants to exchange an authentic expression of love. The person on the receiving end may feel unclear as to why one would ask such a question when they clearly love their partner.

Here is another example of how one question can ignite conflict, “What did you do all day?” That question can be heard as, “Did you do anything all day?” or it might be heard as an accusation that, “You didn’t do anything all day.” When I work with someone in therapy, I recommend that they phrase the question like, “I’m interested in your day and want to hear about it.” But most of us don’t speak that way in our everyday lives or with our partners! The point is, we need to be clear of our own motivation in asking the question as well as being prepared to step into our partner’s shoes and hear the question from their perspective. If we are on the receiving end of a seemingly “loaded” question, we are responsible for how we interpret it and for being open to the possibility that it may have been intended differently.

So, now that you understand the complexity of questions, what do you do? I think the first thing is to ask yourself, “What is my purpose for asking my question?” and then share your purpose with your partner. I can’t tell you how many times before I ask a question, as a therapist, I reassure my client that I am asking only to understand. For example, if someone is struggling in their marriage, I want to understand why this person continues to stay in their marriage, I want to know if there’s something good about their relationship that they’ve not mentioned. I may ask, “Why do you stay in your marriage?” My client may think that I am saying, “You should have left your marriage” and they could easily feel harshly judged. My truth is that I only want to gain further understanding, so I let them know that ahead of time.

In addition to thinking about the purpose of our questions, we need to be open to knowing that we can easily misunderstand the question we’re being asked and seek clarification. For the person who is on the receiving end of a question, try to be open to your partner. There may have been times in the past that a question may have been meant as an accusation, however maybe this time it was simply meant as an inquiry for deepened understanding. Understanding that asking questions can be complicated could allow you to identify potential misunderstandings before they escalate into full-blown conflict!

Hang in there, it’s hard work but hopefully it will pay off for a happy and healthier relationship.

Pam Fullterton HeadshotPam Fullerton has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for the past 19 years. Although she works with a variety of life issues that are presented to her in therapy, her passion is to understand the vast complexities of all relationships. She believes that healthy connections with others are what promote personal growth. Keep up with her writings on relationships, mindfulness, and more by subscribing here.

Note: Details of any stories told in any of my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people I work with in therapy.

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