Do You Ask To Understand Or Argue?

There is a saying I learned awhile back that changed my communication strategy forever: “The one who asks the questions controls the conversation.”

This means that in order to lead a conversation (or take control over a conversation), ask purposeful questions. The other person will answer, which will give you the information you need to guide the conversation effectively.

This works especially well during difficult conversations or when emotions are running high.

The problem with this strategy, however, is that we sometimes ask questions with the intention of getting what we want rather than leading a productive conversation.

I learned this conversation strategy during direct sales training. In sales, the goal is to convince a person to buy what we are selling (or at least find value in what we are selling). By asking purposeful questions, we can lead someone down a thinking path that ultimately results in a purchase. It’s very much a manipulation strategy (not always in a negative way, though).

I’m not in direct sales anymore, but I still catch myself sometimes asking questions in order to guide a conversation exactly where I want it to go – almost like I’m intentionally trapping the other person into a dead end.

This is not very nice of me. And it certainly isn’t productive for my relationships.

Asking questions guides a conversation

Questions are very useful in conversation, especially when we are trying to resolve a conflict.

Questions allow us to extract information from the other person and better understand what he or she is feeling and thinking.

We can ask questions like, “Why did you say that to me?” or “In what way did that hurt your feelings?” and then let the other person provide an answer.

This is helpful because it initiates constructive dialog and shows the other person we care about their side of the story.

However, it is so easy to seize opportunities to direct the conversation exactly where we want it to go in order to trap the other person and prove our point or prove that we are right.

Don’t ask questions to argue

As tempting as it is, setting up a conversation just so that we can argue that we are right is unproductive.

If we really want to reach a happy medium, or at least practice mutual respect, both people must not direct the dialog toward a one-sided conversation.

One-sided conversations do not provide a medium for understanding and growth.

Ask questions to understand

A better way to make uncomfortable and emotionally heated conversations more productive and less tense is to approach the conversation with genuine curiosity.

Get curious about why the other person responded the way he or she did. Really pay attention to the words, tone of voice, and gestures. Put your guard down and open yourself up a bit so that you can detect the subtleties that he or she is conveying.

Ask a question in order to better understand what the person means. Don’t have an attitude about it; just be calm and matter-of-fact.

And then, here’s the big part: listen to the answer.

Ask then shut your trap

Once you ask a question, let the person answer.

If there is silence after your question, keep that trap closed and wait. Eventually, the person will speak. If not, simply ask again.

Aim for understanding, not to prove you are right.

Ask follow-up questions and definitely provide a response yourself. Your opinions and views matter just as much.

Practice taking a leadership role in your conversations by asking questions for understanding rather than argument.


Ouch. This one stings.

Conversation is a lifelong skill that few people ever master. (I am definitely not one of them, but even they make mistakes from time to time.)

As with incorrectly judging people and learning to accept people for who they are, if we approach our conversations with compassion and curiosity rather than competition and greed, we find that there are plenty of constructive ways to settle differences and decrease the stress and tension of conflict.

Think about conversations you had in the past. Was there ever a time you knowingly led a conversation exactly where you wanted it to go? Was there ever a time when you felt like you were being led into a dead end? Reflect on these conversations and think about how the dialog could have been more productive.

In your next conversation, be observant and curious about the other person’s thoughts and feeling. If there is something you don’t understand, ask a question about it. Keep asking questions until you work through the issues together. Develop a genuine appetite for understanding the other person’s perspective.

It will feel extremely uncomfortable at first; but the more you practice, the better you will be at leading constructive conversations. And the better you are at leading constructive conversations, the better your relationships will be.


(photo credit: mlinksva via photopin cc)

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