Updated: Oct 13, 2021
If you've asked your partner, family member or a friend this question before, you’ve probably also heard this answer... “NOTHING!”
The way that the "nothing" is delivered, confirms your suspicion that there is actually something wrong. And it might be even worse than you thought!
Why does such a simple, innocent question sometimes trigger such a negative reaction? Isn't it good to be concerned? I've heard many people (including myself) complain about something along the lines of: “I can see something is wrong, but when I ask, all I get is: 'Nothing!'"
Here is the secret, my friend: asking “what is wrong?” is part of what’s wrong. It's a mistake. A mistake we repeat again and again. Every time we ask the same question, we get the same reaction, yet the next time we notice that something's up... we just repeat the same question. Then we are very surprised when we get the same reaction. Isn’t that insane? To explain what I mean by this, let's look at the definition of wrong. What does it mean? Thank you, Google:
adjective not correct or true; incorrect. "that is the wrong answer" unjust, dishonest, or immoral. "that was wrong of me"
adverb in an unsuitable or undesirable manner or direction. "what am I doing wrong?" noun an unjust, dishonest, or immoral act. "I have done you a great wrong"
verb act unjustly or dishonestly towards. "they would kill a man who wronged a family" mistakenly attribute bad motives to; misrepresent. "Perhaps I wronged him"
My point is that whichever way you look at it, wrong is bad. So using the word wrong to start a conversation is not a great strategy. And I know that what we really mean when we ask this question, is “what is bothering you?”
Most of the time, we are actually concerned and trying to engage. The hard truth is, neither “what is wrong?” or “what is bothering you?” is a great question.
One reason for this is that there is an assumption locked up in the question. Something is wrong. I want to know what it is, so we can right it. Something is bothering you; I want to know what it is, so I can fix it. Relationships are not this mechanical.
Look at the difference between these two questions: “What is wrong?” vs “Is something wrong?”
This small shift can already make a difference because we remove the assumption, but it's not enough.
“Is something wrong?” is still a bit of a clumsy question because if the answer is yes, what will the follow-up question be? Yep… “What?” But at least now we have a conversation going.
True communication can be taxing, especially in the beginning. I think that is one of the reasons we keep on asking the same question even when we know we will get the same answer. Learning to communicate differently can be hard... and scary.
Our own projections can also cause us to read our partner's behaviour in a way that makes us feel that something is wrong. I'm not going to go into projections today, but to put it simply, one form of projection is when we link the body language of our partner to something we did earlier. “Maybe it is because I….” (fill in one of your unpopular behaviours). So we need to ask better questions. But a good question does not guarantee that we will have great communication. It is still a team effort. And because every one of us is responsible to communicate our own needs, frustrations and emotions, we cannot rely on or wait for the right question. That being said, there are questions that help us create a safer space for better communication. It takes practice and it's a team effort.
Try the following. See your assumptions as suspicions, and then test your suspicions with your partner. It might sound something like this:
“Can I check something with you? It seems like you are caught up in your thoughts. Are you?” “Can I check something with you? It seems to me like you are upset. Are you?” “I'm wondering if there's something that you want to talk about. You seem anxious to me. Are you?”
If the answer is a sarcastic: “Well done, Sherlock!” Follow up with, “Will you help me understand, because I really want to?” If the answer is “No.” Follow up with something like: “ Is there something else you want to talk about?” If the answer is “Yes.” Follow up with something along the lines of: “I'm willing to listen to you if you would like to talk about it.”
By doing this, we make the space as safe as we possibly can. Now it is up to the other person to use this safe space and share. As I said, it’s a team effort. But now we are not talking about something that's wrong, rather it's an open invitation for communication.
I also know that many of you will have objections to this. These objections will sound something like this: “You don't know my partner...” or, “If I talk to my partner like that, then…” All I can say is: if the other way isn't working for you, at least try this a few times.
Good luck my friends.
Sharing is caring. Share this with someone.
Today's book recommendation: