The same conversation unfolds at dinner tables across the country every September:
“How was school?”
“What did you do?”
Not exactly a stirring or satisfying exchange. Which may explain why many of us give up the attempt by October. We’re frustrated with our children for being uncommunicative, or we laughingly chastise teens for being withdrawn. Yet, while there may be some truth to that, the bigger problem lies with our questioning style.
Those questions aren’t inviting. We’ve uttered them a thousand times, and probably answered them just as many when we were young. They’ve lost their meaning.
Several years ago, I took a wonderful workshop called “Questions to Mediate Thinking” with Michael Dolcemascolo. I loved it so much that I took several more workshops on the Cognitive Coaching model (www.cognitivecoaching.com), which uses the type of questioning Dolcemascolo had presented. As a result, I shifted the way I phrase my questions both to my students and my children.
As a teacher, I try hard not to ask “fake” questions—questions where there’s only one right answer I’ll accept. As a parent, I try not to phrase directives as questions. For instance, “Do you want to go to bed?” would be a ridiculous question in my house since my children never want to sleep. So I don’t offer it as a question. Instead, I simply say, “It’s bedtime.”
I reserve questions for when I really want to hear the answer, when the answer may be unexpected, and when I want to engage the answerer in deep thinking. Cognitive Coaching highlights four ways in which you can make your questions invitational.
This describes the lift at the end of our voice when we come to a question mark. The tone is more musical, as opposed to the level way we tend to deliver information (think of a news anchor or James Earl Jones). The lilt expresses your interest and engagement in the answer to come. The listener senses you’re curious about what he might say.
This was my major “Ah-ha” moment from that first workshop. So it turns out that if you place plural forms in your questions, you invite multiple responses. In other words, there isn’t just one correct answer to your question, and children are less likely to feel anxious about risking an answer since there are a lot of possible responses. For example, instead of “What did you do today?” try “What are some activities you did today?” It seems minor, but I’ve seen it make a huge difference in my classroom and my home.
Use language that is less directive and authoritative. (You can still be the boss … but perhaps not at this moment.) Here’s where you want to avoid those silly rhetorical questions because they don’t really get you anywhere. You also want to avoid questions beginning with “Why,” since those almost always sound judgmental and accusatory. Instead, use words that encourage the answerer to weigh in. For example, try “What are some of your hunches as to why some underage kids might drink?” Imagine the kind of conversation that could ensue from that as opposed to “Do your friends drink?” or “Why do kids drink?” both of which set the stage for a confrontation instead of a thoughtful discussion.
Language is layered with all kinds of hidden messages. Ideally, we should assume goodness and positive intent when we’re talking to our children. If we don’t, they’ll know it and shut us out. Positive presuppositions make the listener feel valued and empowered. For example, we all know that “What were you thinking?” means the questioner believes the listener was not thinking at all. It’s rhetorical, dismissive and critical.
Question beginnings that assume positive intent sound quite different: “As you think about ...” or “Given what you know…” Imagine the answers to these questions: “As you plan for your research paper, what are some things you might want to keep in mind?” or “As you think about your successful approach to your last paper, what are some things you used then that might help now?” Here, the listener knows you respect her planning and her past successes and that you have confidence in her ability to do well again.
This may feel like we’re spending a lot of time discussing something simple. After all, it’s just semantics, right? True. But semantics, or language, matters. If we complain about uncommunicative or quarrelsome kids, then we believe language matters.
Language is the glue holding our relationships together. It’s essential to figure out how to talk and listen to each other. So, the next time you’re tempted to ask “How was your day?” try “What are some things that made you laugh today?” or “As you reflect on the week, what were some of your favorite moments?” I guarantee you’ll be happily surprised by the results. ■
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photo above: © Karen Struthers | Dreamstime.com)