My preschooler has become a skilled “whyer”: Why does the sun go down at night? Why is my hair brown? Why do I have a baby brother and not a sister?
Why-questions help her learn; they signal her curiosity and thirst for knowledge. In other words, when we’re kids, why-questions are educational tools.
By the time we become spouses and parents, many of us have learned to replace “whying” with “whyning.” Instead of using why-questions to learn, we ask them to complain, criticize, control, show mistrust, etc. Case in point:
Why did you say that? or Why didn’t you do what I asked?
Read literally, neither of these questions is whiny or critical. But read with the right tone—you know the one I mean—why-questions undermine curiosity and closeness. Instead of inviting conversation, they shut it down and trigger defensiveness.
What can we do? For starters, we can be our own tone-police. Before asking a question of our spouses or kids, especially if we’re peeved or out of sorts, we can take a moment to decide how we want to come across: e.g., sincere, caring, judgmental, wary, etc.
We can also ask more open-ended questions. While not always criticism-free—e.g., What possessed you to do that?—what-questions and how-questions are often friendlier than why-questions, e.g., How did you decide what to say? or What held you back from doing what I asked?
Another option is to add this powerful, relationship-enhancing question to your conversational vocabulary:
What’s important to you about that?
Asking spouses—and kids old enough to respond—what’s important to them about something they’re saying or doing, sparks connection. Amazingly, this question can bring us closer even when they’re doing or saying things we don’t agree with!
Don’t get me wrong. Tone still matters. The question—What’s important to you about that?—enhances our relationships only if we’re truly curious about the answer. It sparks connection solely if we accept that our spouses and kids are different than us.
If we can be curious about those differences—instead of rejecting, fearing, resisting or denying them—we gift our spouses and kids space to be true to who they are, instead of who we want them to be. In turn, we grow their trust in us.
Willing to add another question to your repertoire? Whenever you start whying your spouse or kids, consider asking yourself:
What’s important to me about this?
There are no guarantees that spouses or children will welcome our answer, but:
(1) Exploring and, then, articulating what’s important to us in any given moment, especially if we’re on the cusp of whying others, increases the likelihood that our conversation will be productive;
(2) Figuring out what motivates our requests and expectations helps us honor our values and priorities, instead of focusing on how others fail to honor us; and
(3) Evaluating what motivates us can help us realize that what motivates our spouses and kids might be different. In other words, it might inspire us to circle back to asking: What’s important to you about that?
Why bother with any of this? Wait, I just lapsed into why-ing. Instead, I’ll leave you with a different, more open-ended question:
What’s important to you about increasing closeness with your spouse & child/ren?