How do you ask?

Question mark made up of multi-colored speech bubblesHow you ask affects the answer you receive.

Latin allows us to be explicit in this formation, as I learned many years ago when reading the classic British mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers. This line appears in the next-to-last book of the series, Gaudy Night: “One First of April, the question had arrived from Paris in a single Latin sentence, starting off dispiritedly, ‘Num…?’ – a particle which notoriously ‘expects the answer No.'”

The corresponding “expects the answer Yes” particle is nonne.

Okay. Why does this matter? Well, the Latin part is merely me having fun. But when we understand how we can influence the answer to our question in more subtle ways than arguing, debating, demanding, or attempting to convince, we have new ways to guide a conversation’s outcome.

(If you’re thinking this sounds manipulative, read this post.)

Compare these two questions:

  1. Do you still want to go to the beach tomorrow?
  2. What time shall we leave for the beach tomorrow?

The first question creates doubt about whether we’re going. The second question is clear that we are going – it’s just a matter of when we’re leaving. Neither is “wrong” – it just depends on whether or not you want to go to the beach!

  1. Don’t you want to go home?
  2. You don’t want to go home, do you?

These two questions sound almost identical, yet it’s clear that the first expects “Yes, let’s go home!” and the second, “No, I’m not ready yet.”

These are obvious … or are they?

In spoken language (versus written in an article about asking questions!), it’s more subtle than you might think.

Things get even more interesting when we factor in the asker’s state of mind. If you’re feeling full of confidence and self-assurance, and firmly believe you deserve to get what you want, you’ll ask in a way that expects “Yes!” On the other hand, if you’re discouraged, un-confident, and not sure you can actually have what you want, you’ll tend to ask in ways that generate exactly what you expect: “No!”

Our desire for a particular answer influences how we ask – but our expectations about the answer we’re likely to receive almost always take precedence, albeit usually unconsciously.

So if you have an important question to ask or request to make, you’ll want to do two things.

  1. Make sure you use words that lead in the right direction, and
  2. Take the time to boost your confidence and convince yourself that you deserve and will get the answer you want.

One final note: If you’re someone who often feels unheard or that your wants and needs – whether professional or personal – are overlooked or denied, take a long look at how you’re asking. You may feel as if you’re being clear and definite in your requests, but the reality could be that you’re quietly hoping others will read your mind.