Do you want to create a richer connection with your partner? To have those conversations that are intimate and meaningful? Are you shutting down opportunities for a deeper relationship with someone you love by the way you talk with them?
Wait, I’m sorry. Let me try those questions again.
How do you connect better with people? Recount a time when you had a meaningful conversation. What kinds of questions elicit a deeper engagement?
We all have conversations with people who are not gifted in connecting, and maybe we struggle to connect in conversations. Connecting through conversation is integral to any relationship, and our questions often determine the quality of that engagement. The key to asking engaging questions may be simpler than you think.
There’s a colloquial expression: it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Although the tone of our questions is important, the actual questions themselves are the key to engaging conversations. Read the first paragraph of this article again. How can someone respond to the questions in this first paragraph? They are all closed-ended questions, which typically prompt simple one-word answers, so what you say does matter.
My favorite Saturday Night Live skit comes from The Chris Farley Show, where he painstakingly struggles to interview his famous guests. He labors through interview questions that all begin with, “Do you remember…?” Leaving the famous interviewee to blandly respond, “Yes. Yes, I do.”
The point of the skit is to show how poor Farley is in interviewing his guests, barraging them with yes-or-no questions that cause the audience to feel the lack of connection or depth. It’s brilliantly hilarious, but also terrifyingly familiar.
All of us have been the one uncomfortably asking questions of the person we want to impress or connect with, only to find ourselves running the conversation into a brick wall. These types of questions narrow down the possible responses to a version of either yes or no. When you ask closed-ended questions, you lead your conversation partner down a path that severely limits opportunity for depth and connection.
So, in what ways are closed-ended questions a part of those conversations? How can we free ourselves from this limited way of speaking?
How to Ask Open-Ended Questions
There is a very simple strategy in how you talk with your loved ones that can enhance your ability to create better conversations—especially with your partner—and that is to ask open-ended questions. The idea of open-ended questions comes from Miller and Rollnick’s Motivational Interviewing, which is a widely accepted form of dialogue that enhances the participant’s motivation to accept change. But open-ended questions are not only good for therapy; they are also key to fostering engaging conversations in our everyday lives.
To better enhance the opportunity for deeper, richer conversation, according to Miller and Rollnick, you have to work on your phrasing of questions. Open-ended means that the questions cannot be appropriately answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions do not begin with “do” or “did,” which generally prompt a simple answer; open-ended types of questions usually begin with these words:
- How did you…
- In what ways…
- Tell me about…
- What’s it like…
If you have a teenage child, imagine asking them this question at the end of the day: “Did you have a good day today?” Do you think that will prompt a thrilling conversation where your teen opens up to you about all their hopes and dreams? Of course it won’t. Instead, you could try: “In what ways did you feel accomplished today?”
Asking open-ended questions encourages the person you’re conversing with to think critically and therefore to be more engaging, because open-ended questions allow the respondent, not the asker, to control the response.
Try reading the second paragraph of this article again, and notice how the paragraph is entirely comprised of open-ended questions that require much more critical thought than the questions in the first paragraph. You are invited to self-reflect and to dive into descriptive answers that are ripe for follow-up questions. In using more open-ended questions in conversation, you invite people to talk with you rather than talk to you. That is the recipe for better conversations.
When it comes to romantic relationships, asking open-ended questions is especially important, and The Gottman Institute’s methods encourage couples to ask open-ended questions of each other on a regular basis to deepen their intimacy. Let’s imagine those moments in a romantic relationship where connection is difficult, where busyness is the norm, yet you long for a rich conversation with your partner like you used to have.
You turn to your partner and ask, “Do you feel happy with our relationship right now?” How does someone begin to answer this question when it might seem so reductive? Let’s reword this question to be more open-ended and see how it evokes conversation: “In what ways do you feel happy with our relationship?” This open-ended example provides a much more constructive setting to better know what is going well in the relationship.
Which brings us to this: better conversation is more vulnerable and more intimate conversation. It is very difficult to share your thoughts and emotions by answering closed-ended questions, but with open-ended questions, the door for deeper connectedness is flung wide open. Granted, you cannot force someone to be open and honest and share their deeper selves, but you can create an atmosphere that invites deeper connection.
Open-ended questions require us to be engaged in what we are saying. And when we are engaged in what we are saying, we create better and more meaningful conversation.
The Gottman Card Decks App
Need some guidance on how to ask open-ended questions of your partner? Download our free Gottman Card Decks, a relationships app that includes our popular Love Maps, Open-Ended Questions, and more virtual card decks to help you and your partner connect and deepen your intimacy.
“Trust is essential.
According to one researcher, trust is the cornerstone of every relationship. But how do we become trustworthy? And how do we regain trust in someone when they’ve done something to betray our trust?
As essential as trust is for healthy relationships, trust is also tricky. In my counseling training, I was taught, “Trust is the result of trustworthy actions.” This is a handy description, but it needs some nuance to be effective. The obvious question is “What are trustworthy actions?” The answer may seem easy at first blush, but relationships of any length quickly reveal that what one person conceives of as trustworthy activity often goes unnoticed or underappreciated by the other.”
Read the full article at Desiring God.
There are so many ways to instantly communicate with anyone right at your fingertips. But despite this age of heightened connectivity, an increasing number of couples come to me citing device usage and social media as an issue in their relationship. Excessive device usage acts as a barrier to quality communication, which leaves partners feeling ignored or unimportant.
Many of us have experienced sharing a significant story with someone and they grab their cell phone halfway through the conversation. Attempting to share the highlights of your day with your partner but they have their nose buried in their Facebook feed? Trying to relay a story about your son but your partner is flipping through Instagram?
Well, the message seems clear – their phone is more important than you are at this moment. Over time, this can be very problematic, leading to feelings of rejection and separateness. You may even start to believe, “Why bother?”
Recent research indicates how cell phones are affecting our relationships. In a study titled “My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone,” Meredith Davis and James Roberts suggest that the overuse of cell phones can lead to greater dissatisfaction within our most important relationships. According to their study, which included 145 adults, excessive device usage decreased marital satisfaction.
An additional study by Chinese scientists assessed 243 married adults with similar outcomes. This study posits that excessive phone usage not only decreases your marital satisfaction, but it also contributes to a greater likelihood of depression. And even more concerning is that 86% of American adults constantly check their devices for social media updates, email, and text messages.
The implications are clear; our most important relationships can be dulled and diminished in favor of screen time. But you and your partner can work together to overcome excessive device usage and reconnect with face-to-face time together.
The Importance of Bids
Drs. John and Julie Gottman assert the importance of “bids” in healthy relationships. A bid is an attempt at seeking attention, affirmation, and/or affection to positively connect with your partner.
For example, at a meal together you might say, “I can’t decide between the fish and the steak” to your companion. Although the content of the statement isn’t incredibly important here, it’s a simple attempt to connect with your partner in that moment. Your partner could keep perusing their menu and ignore you, or they could accept your bid for connection and say something like, “They both sound good, but didn’t you just have steak the other night when you tried that new restaurant down the street?”
If your partner responds positively in that very small interaction, they are being mindful that you want to connect with them and are “turning toward” you. Dr. Gottman’s research suggests that successful couples turn toward each other about 86% of the time, and accepting your partner’s bids requires paying attention, which is something you can’t do if you’re using your phone.
Too much screen time may also prompt trust issues. Is your partner communicating with someone else? Are they messaging with an ex through Facebook? Social media may blur the lines of what is acceptable behavior and it could potentially lead to an emotional affair, so make sure to have a conversation with your partner about what is off limits and why.
A good rule of thumb: use real world boundaries as a guide. If you wouldn’t have that conversation with a Facebook friend in real life with your partner by your side, it’s probably best not to do it online, either.
Spending Device-Free Time Together
You should make it a priority to spend quality time with your partner without your cell phone. But before you make any rules, you should examine your own phone habits first and discuss the issue with your partner calmly and respectfully.
James Roberts, in addition to his co-authored study above, also wrote “Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone?” He explains that “if you need to improve as well, approach your partner that this is something you need to tackle together. If you point the finger at your partner without taking responsibility for your own behavior, it won’t go over well.” Like Dr. John Gottman suggests, it is always best to express how you feel and what you need by using a soft start-up.
Once you and your partner have that discussion, try taking 30 minutes together, face-to-face, as a trial run without phones. Notice how different your interaction and conversation feels when you can see each other’s facial expressions and make eye contact, which will give you an indication of how much more connected the two of you may be when spending time device-free. Express how you feel after those 30 minutes, and try to build that routine into your daily life with your partner.
Outside of 30 minutes of daily device-free time, silencing your phone during dinner, or even leaving it in another room, is a good habit to get into so you can focus on the meal and on your partner and/or family. You can make an agreement with your partner on when and where smartphones will be allowed or not, and there are apps that you can use to monitor how much time you’re spending on the phone, especially if you’d like to cut back on device usage overall.
Despite these suggestions, some of my clients will say, “But I have to be plugged in for work.” The importance of staying connected to your job is understandable, especially that more and more employers expect their employees to be accessible outside of work, but you can set boundaries for work-related phone use, too. You could try using a “do not disturb” feature on your phone to silence alerts and phone calls, but you can also allow certain contacts (like your boss) to get through in case there’s an urgent issue that needs your attention.
Whether you use your phone for work or leisure, it’s important to make an effort to spend more time face-to-face with your partner. All it takes is to be present, look your partner in the eyes, and have a real conversation. Once you feel more connected to them, you’ll know that it’s worth the effort.
Katie Golem, MSW, LSW
(Katie Golem is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist based in Chicago, IL. Working with both couples and individuals, she is passionate about helping others thrive. She also loves to write – you can find her blog here: artemiscounseling.com. Article originally posted at https://www.gottman.com/blog/smartphone-might-sabotage-relationship/. Reposted with permission.)
A mother and her teenage son were arguing in the kitchen. The issue was what time for him to be home on a weekend night. Standing by the sink, with her arms folded she just could not understand why he was so adamant about being out late.
He sulked in the chair at the kitchen table. “You never listen to me,” he complained.
“Yes, I do,” she countered, “Look, I let you explain for quite a few minutes. I never interrupted; I was as quiet as a church mouse that whole time. What do you want me to do?”