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Psychology Today: Do You Know How to Ask Questions in Your Relationship?

From Psychology Today: When you seek information from your partner, chances are you assume that no matter how you ask the question, you’ll get the same answer. You and your partner may even pride yourselves on your ability to read each other’s minds so that the exact words you use may seem irrelevant. However, if you stop and think about these assumptions, it might occur to you that there is more to question-asking as a strategy than you realize. Perhaps you called home to ask if your partner actually cleaned out that messy hall closet as they had promised to do. It may seem accusatory even to ask this question. However, the task was bound to be unpleasant, and you know that there was an important game that they wanted to watch. This now leaves you with two options: don’t ask and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised vs. disappointed, or ask and communicate your lack of trust to your partner.

If You Ask, Will You Receive?

According to University of Utah’s Eric VanEpps and George Mason University’s Einav Hart (2022), “Ideally, information-seeking questions would produce answers that are true, relevant, and enhance the asker’s knowledge. However, the reality is not so simple” (p. 1). This very observation is enough to reinforce your reluctance to dive in and enhance your knowledge. Luckily, VanEpps and Hart suggested ways that you can steer the question-asking process into one that accomplishes this goal while also preserving the good feelings in your relationship. In the three-pronged model of question asking that the Utah-Virginia researchers propose, every time you ask a question, you send out certain signals, which, in turn, can potentially increase the likelihood of an answer along with its truthfulness. In large part, the entire process falls into the category of impression management. What may seem like a straightforward question (“Did you clean the closet?”) actually communicates your level of trust or distrust in your partner. It may also have the unfortunate side effect of making it very easy for your partner to slither out of a truthful response.

Breaking Down the Question-Asking Process

From prior research across various domains in the impression management, communication, and deception literatures, VanEpps and Hart present their model as an interactive process. Looking at each component separately, they are as follows: Asking behavior: A question can vary in its phrasing, timing, and likelihood of being asked at all. Signals: The asking behaviors send out cues to the other person to communicate messages about what is considered a desirable answer, the knowledge that the asker already has, and the nature of the interpersonal relationship between the two parties. Answering behavior: As noted above, an answer can either be given or not, and if it’s given, it can be truthful or not.
You can’t control the answering behavior of your partner, but by tinkering with your own behavior, you can ensure that the signals will be favorably received, leading your partner to give you an honest answer. Thinking about questions in terms of these components can help you see both how questions can work or not work for you.
Read more at Psychology Today.

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