Yesterday my husband asked me a question.
And instead of answering that question I answered the question I thought he really meant to ask.
You can only imagine how that went down.
Why do we do this? And I say ‘we’ because I know I’m not the only one who communicates with other adults in this fashion.
Contrast this to how we communicate with kids.
When my son asks me a question, I first listen carefully, and then answer him very literally.
If my answer doesn’t satisfy him (and let’s be honest, he’s four, the first answer never satisfies a four year old) he’ll ask another. Again, I’ll listen carefully, then answer the exact and specific question he’s asked. We’ll continue this until he’s satisfied he’s reached the desired level of understanding of whatever concept we’re discussing (you guys would’ve loved to be flies on the wall for a recent conversation about airbags).
When an adult asks me something, I listen to roughly half the question before my mind starts to ponder ‘what are they really asking here?’ and I start trying to read between the lines of their question.
And instead of answering their actual question I will always answer the question Ithink they’re trying to ask.
Why? There are two reasons.
The first is because I want to be that person who knows what you’re thinking before you even realise you’re thinking it. I want to be seen as clever and insightful. I want people to say ‘that Kelly Exeter, she just gets me.’
The second reason is that, most of the time, when an adult asks a question, they aren’t asking the actual question they want the answer to. They are just laying groundwork for where they really want to go later in the conversation.
And so we dance, delicately pirouetting around a subject, testing the waters, (mixing metaphors), trying to see if we can ‘go there’ or not.
Why do we do this? When did it become impolite to ask direct questions?
At the end of every conversation with my four year old he summarises for me what he has come to understand, waits for me to say ‘yep, you’ve got that right buddy’ and then walks away happy. Which makes me happy.
At the end of every conversation with an adult I obsess about whether they ‘got’ what I was trying to say. I worry that I didn’t pick up on all the different bits of hidden meaning in their questions. I worry that I said ‘the wrong thing’.
Adult communication is hard enough already. Why do we make it even harder?