Asking the Right Questions
Words by Sarah Baughman
I believe most women want to support and empower one another. Yet, sometimes we end up doing the opposite. When a girlfriend calls brokenhearted, frustrated at work, or lonely, we carefully consider what we can say to help, but forget that our questions have the power to build one another up or wear one another down. As women, are we asking each other the right questions to support one another or are we unknowingly adding to the societal pressures on women to achieve it all and achieve it in the acceptable time frame?
I am twenty-nine and have been married to my husband, Ryan, four years. Since I am already married, the obvious “next” is kids. Family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers frequently ask, “So, when are you having kids?” or “How old do you want to be when you have kids?” Women often say, “Oh, no kids yet?” followed by, “Don’t you want kids?” These questions make me feel like I am “behind.” They make me feel like my worth and identity as a woman and wife is defined solely through motherhood. What if my answer is I don’t want to have kids? What if my answer is my husband and I don’t know yet? What if I do want kids but found out that I can’t have any? Are we implying there is a “right” age to have kids? Are we implying there is something wrong if we don’t know the answer to this life-altering question?
My close friend went through a difficult break up. Many of the questions women asked her added to her pain. She was asked things like, “Are you scared?” and “Are you going to be okay financially?” One asked if she was going to stay in her current city. Another offered up advice saying, “You should work it out because dating is hard when you get older. Do you want to start over?” None of these questions made her feel supported or loved. Instead, they made her feel judged and like she had taken steps backwards. Of course, she is scared, and maybe she feels panicked and overwhelmed at the thought of starting over. Are we implying she should go through the upheaval and financial stress of leaving a place she loves just because a relationship is over? That seems to convey she is not strong enough or resilient enough to weather this challenge and come through better. Even worse, could these questions be construed to say she should stay in a relationship that isn’t the right one?
Another friend transitioned from a highly-trained professional career into being a stay-at-home mom. She was asked questions like, “Will you ever go back to work?” or “Won’t you go crazy with kids and no adult conversation?” or “What will you do all day?” Those questions did not make her feel her new role as a mother was exciting and meaningful. They made her feel inadequate, nervous, and “less than.” What if she doesn’t ever want to go back to work? How could we imply that staying at home all day with children will not be busy or meaningful?
The questions we ask others reflect so much about our own priorities, ideas, and beliefs. We ask about things that are important to us instead of asking about things that are important to the other person. Instead of asking questions to better understand one another and show empathy, our questions end up subtly casting judgment or appearing condescending. Our perceived need to ask questions about what is coming next often implies there is a right next step or a right timeline. It can also contribute to the anxiety that comes from living at a frantic pace and rob us of the joy of living in the present and staying in the moment.
If we begin to phrase our questions with empathy as our guide and understanding as our goal, our questions will open the door for vulnerability, deep connections, and inspiration. An empathetic question does not have an undertone of judgment. Instead of asking whether Ryan and I want kids, ask “What are guys looking forward to this year?” or “How are you and Ryan doing?” These questions are open-ended and show you care about my emotions, desires, and goals.
Perhaps ask the girlfriend going through a break-up, “How can I be there for you?” or tell her, “I am here for you whatever you need. What would help?” These questions show that you want to support her in the ways she needs. Very importantly, these kinds of questions show she is accepted and cared for as she is, no matter whether she is doing well or hurting.
Consider asking a new stay-at-home mom, “What are you most looking forward to about staying at home?” or “How are you feeling about this new time in your life?” These questions show her that you are excited for what is coming next in her life and value her decision to stay home. These questions allow for honest conversations where she feels safe to share how she is truly feeling.
There is no right next step. There is no right timeline. Each of us has a unique journey, which means a different next step and a different timeline. When we ask pointed questions with hidden agendas, however well-meaning, we try to make other women fit our mold and validate our choices in life. This certainly does not help them, and it also hurts us. It undermines the wonderful opportunities we have for enriching friendships and intimate, open conversations and dialogue. As women, let’s start celebrating that we all have different dreams, jobs, and relationships. Let’s use our questions to truly seek understanding, so we can experience the freedom and joy that comes with supporting and empowering one another.
Click to read next: 3 Ways to Support Someone Who is Hurting
About the Author:
Sarah Baughman is a middle school teacher in San Diego, California. Sarah's love for teaching literature and writing inspired her to begin her own writing! Sarah and her husband, Ryan, have two dogs, Beanie and Nala. They enjoy hiking, going to the beach, and trying new dog-friendly restaurants.