/ Communication

On leading questions

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time after I finished my accidental essay on polyamory thinking as soon after I completed that, I was walking along and more thoughts sprang to mind.

Anyhow, today’s topic of choice is the use of language in effective communication in a relationship context. God, that was a mouthful. It’s simpler than it sounds though.

For the purposes of disambiguation, I refer to “relationships” in all their multifarious flavours, varieties and forms, not solely polyamorous, monogamous or even romantic ones. This stuff applies to *human *relationships, fundamentally.

However, for this piece, I’m going to use some sort of polyamorish romantic relationship as an example of things that might come up in conversation. Project your situation on this as you will.

So what’s all this about?

Think back to the last time you wanted to ask your partner something. Let’s say you’ve met a new squeeze and have spent a few evenings in each other’s company at the coffee shop on the corner, chatting, getting to know one another and generally being companionable.

At some point, you decide that you’re both into one another and wouldn’t it be wonderful to bump into one another sometime, naked? You’re both grownups and are pretty au fait with sexy adventures and are generally sex-positive humans. So far so good!

So you say to your partner: “Do you mind if I spend the night next Thursday with my friend Ellie?”. Your partner is aware that you’ve been spending time with Ellie and is broadly OK with that. You’ve been open about the fact that you’ve met this new human and have kept your partner appraised of developments on the Ellie front.

However, your partner still has some minor misgivings about Ellie. Maybe something about her isn’t quite ‘right’ but it’s not a big enough deal that it’s come up in conversation.

You can see where this is going.

By phrasing the question as “Do you mind if xyz?”, you’re superficially giving your partner the choice to say “No”, but really, you’re biasing the response in favour of what you want to hear. Granted, this is not always the case – some folk are really forthright, straightforward and blunt in communicating a ‘negative’ response, but it takes work and a certain thickness of skin.

We don’t like saying “no”. It can make us feel selfish and greedy to say: “Yes, I mind you spending so much time with Ellie”.

Even if you mean it to be a totally open-ended question, your partner might not see that. If you’re ‘fishing’ for an answer, stop it, you manipulative pillock. You’ll get your end in this time, but it’ll leave your partner feeling like they’ve been not-so-subtly circumvented and their wishes/wants/desires/feelings/apprehensions have gone unheeded.

Great, but what’s the alternative?

Well, it turns out that it’s actually quite simple. It takes work, but then what doesn’t? The solution is multifaceted in its execution.

Stop being afraid of “No”

A key reason that we ask leading questions like “Do you mind if…?” or “Would it be OK if…?” or “I’m doing *x, *you’re OK with that, right?” – the very worst of these – is that we really don’t like “No”. We’re programmed to see failure or rejection as this huge Bad Thing that we should Avoid At All Costs.

Sometimes, your partner won’t be OK with you spending time with a new lover. The reasons could be multitudinous in number and infinite in variety. Maybe they feel like you’re dashing away with your new toy and leaving them behind? Maybe it’s as simple as “I’m having a really rough time and would really love some support right now”. Whatever the reason, your partner has just as much right to want to spend time with you.

Bear in mind that when I said “Stop being afraid of ‘No'”, I was grossly simplifying.

What I mean is that often, this will be a point of negotiation and compromise. Your partner is unlikely to flat out refuse your request but maybe they’ll have concerns they want to air and discuss with you prior to the event!

Learn to modify your language.

It turns out that language is important! We fall into patterns that we pick up from all around us and don’t even think about how we phrase things often.

So instead of loading your question with bias towards a particular answer (yes), learn to modify the language you use to be more neutral. Note I use the term *neutral *and not ambiguous. You’re aiming for a truly neutral, frank and, above all, clear exchange of views.

If you’re obfuscating your question with ambiguity like “I’ve met this girl a while ago and we’re thinking of getting together sometime; do you mind?” then try to catch yourself and clarify. If you don’t, you risk sounding like a creep and like there’s something going on you don’t want your partner to know.

How do you feel?

The clearest way that I’ve found***** to couch questions like these is simply:

How would you feel if Ellie and I slept together? We’ve been thinking about it and I’d love to hear your thoughts before we go any further.

Or words to that effect. It isn’t biased any specific answer and it means that your partner has a choice in how to answer and isn’t pressured into saying “yes”. In addition, if you assume your partner is telling the truth, then you can act on information received that is accurate to the best of your knowledge without having to employ corkscrew reasoning to get your way and having to rationalise both to yourself and your partner if you get in an argument later.

It works both ways

Remember that this really does go both ways, so you need to be just as clear with your partner about where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong about providing some sort of context to your question and clarifying your position. If you pollute or bias the data you’re giving your partner to work then *they *won’t be acting on accurate information and it’ll come back to bite you in the ass.

***** This works for me, YMMV.

Credit: Cover photo by CMMahon