How to ask questions when you are worried about a loved one

When you are concerned about the well-being of a loved one, whether a family member, a friend or a colleague, it’s important to find out whether your suspicions that something may be wrong are well founded. To do this we have to ask questions, but how can we make sure our questions have the desired effect to make our loved one open up and disclose that things might not be as good as they’d like them to be? Or harder yet, how can we help those we care about to commit to transforming their lives for the better?

Disclosing a sensitive personal or professional situation is not easy and, despite our efforts, the best designed and intended questions may still fail to yield the answers we desperately seek to know. Is your loved one OK? Are they depressed? Have they lost their mojo? Are they being bullied? Is there a problem at home, with mum, dad, with a sibling? Is the one you care about in an abusive relationship? You just want to know!

When all kinds of scenarios are going through your head, take a deep breath and remember this word: PERSPECTIVE. You are concerned, yes, but this exercise is not about you. You are merely trying to show someone unconditional love and support. You should not judge, not jump to conclusions and not blame.

Whether you are hoping to help a friend or a colleague you don’t know so well, building a healthy rapport is the best way to get started. People are more likely to open up to you and express their true feelings when you build a healthy rapport with them. Mirroring their words, behaviour and non-verbal cues can help build rapport instinctively. At the same time, smiling, making eye-contact and expressing genuine interest can help build rapport on a subconscious level.

It’s also important to note that not all questioning will result in candid, open-hearted answers that can fix all problems, but that all questions DO have the power to trigger deep reflection, to assess current circumstances, discover hard truths about oneself and help re-direct one’s path.

There are different types of questions you need to become familiar with in order to obtain the best possible results when dealing with a potentially sensitive and hard to disclose issue:

Closed questions: These are the types of questions that require a one word answer. They are not good questions to discover information but they may be useful prior to starting a conversation as a means to help you build that rapport and trust before the exploration begins. An example of how you may use this type of question would be ‘ May I come in?’, ‘Do you have a minute?’, ‘Is everything OK?’, ‘Are you worried about something?’, ‘Would you like to talk about it with me?’

Open questions: They are the opposite of closed questions in that they invite one to think and develop an answer. These type of questions will give your loved one the time, space and freedom they need to reveal as much as they feel fit and to even discover, as they relate their situation, details, feelings or thoughts they may not have been paying attention to before. Examples of open questions may be ‘How have you been?’, “What do you think about…?’, ‘When was the last time you…?’, ‘Why is…so important to you?’, ‘How do you feel about…?’, and other Wh- question you see fit in line with the person/issue you are hoping to learn about.

Information gathering questions: These are a kind of open questions whose purpose is to gather facts in order to help you and your loved one better understand the situation. They promote problem-solving because they require self-inquiry on the part of the speaker. Examples might be ‘What happened?’, ‘What have you done about…?’, ‘What options do you have?’, ‘Why is … so important?’.

Challenging/testing questions: Often people experience fear, guilt or shame about the situation they are facing. Challenging questions can be important in these circumstances to help your loved one challenge their limiting beliefs and try to see the bigger picture. You may not be able to convince them of your opinion about them, or how they should live their life but you can ask powerful questions that will trigger deep reflection and help them come to a clearer understanding of why they think/feel the way they do. This is the best catalyst for change.

Questions that might challenge limiting beliefs and test one’s perspective may be ‘Why do you think that?’, “How did you get to that conclusion?’, ‘What evidence do you have that…?’.

Hypothetical questions: When you want to help someone overcome a challenge, eliminate a blockage or transform their current situation, it can help to imagine an alternative reality for them. Being able to visualise a more positive life can give the one you care about the fuel they need to go ahead and pursue a new beginning.

‘What would you do if…?’, “How would you feel if…?’, ‘If you could …. what would you…?’, ‘Would you choose to … if you could?’, ‘What could you do for your… to be different?’, ‘How could I get involved in helping you with…?’.

Action questions: When you discover that someone is unhappy about their situation and that they would like to change, it’s important to identify what the best course of action will be. Questions such as ‘What can you do start/stop doing now to help make a change?’, ‘What steps can you take to…?’, ‘How often will you…?’, ‘What can I do to help you achieve this?’.

Prediction questions: These are one of the most powerful questions you can ask because, unlike hypothetical questions, they present a real scenario of what will happen if they do or don’t allow things to continue the same way. Different situations will predict different scenarios and it’s important that you LISTEN to your loved one as they describe what they believe will happen, particularly in situations of domestic violence or other types of abuse, such as ongoing sexual abuse or bullying. Under such circumstances, prediction questions can help you and your loved one craft the best possible plan of action to avoid any of the possible dangerous outcomes predicted in this exercise.

Prediction questions include ‘What are the possible outcomes of taking this course of action?’, ‘What will happen if you decide not to take any action?’, ‘What could be the repercussions of doing/not doing … to your life/health/family/community?’

Now that you are equipped to use questions as a tool to promote transformation, I would love to know this- Is there a type of question you tend to use the most/least? Which type of questions would you like to start using more when talking to those around you? Why? Leave your comments below!