Ways of asking
- Our communication is complex.
- It can be verbal or non-verbal.
- It can be obvious or subtle.
- If you’re ever in doubt, be direct.
- Asking too many questions can be a form of harassment.
- There are lots of questions you can ask to learn what someone wants.
Communication is complicated
Stop Ask Listen is a useful concept, but our real-life relationships are more than just a series of straight questions and answers:
“Hello, my name is Chauncey. Do you want to watch my TV?”
“Do you want to see my band?”
“I don’t know!”
“Do you want to see my butt?”
Real interpersonal communication is more complicated. So, in Stop Ask Listen what do we ask, and how do we do it well?
There’s no magic formula, but we can give you some pointers.
Asking about something you want from the other person
If you want something from another person—and it could be anything, not just money or sex, but even time, attention, affection—then one way to ask is simply and directly:
- “Do you want to watch TV?”
- “Would you keep my streak going while I’m away?”
- “Do you want to kiss me?”
Being direct is good! A lot of people appreciate it when other people are direct with them; it’s just easier and less confusing.
But we often feel scared of being direct, because if you ask directly you might get rejected equally directly, and that would suck. (It might help we all got more comfortable with being vulnerable, and developed the courage to hear a direct no.)
Of course, not every direct question is welcome. Context and timing are everything.
For instance: “Can I kiss you?”
To a random on the bus: not cool.
At the end of a nice date: hey, who knows, could be great.
Most of our communication is through eye-contact, body language, touch—and even more subtle signals that are hard to put into words.
For instance, a lot of people ask, “Can I kiss you?” not by saying those words, but by holding a long look, touching arms and legs, leaning in closer—and making sure the other person is responding the same way to all of these signals—before going in for the kiss.
This is all cool, but the key is making sure the other person is responding positively:
- Are they comfortable?
- Are they mirroring what you’re doing?
- Are you sure it’s because they want to be doing it, or could they be going along with it because they feel like they have to in some way? (Could they be nervous or intimidated?)
- Did you make it safe to say no, even if non-verbally?
If they’re not responding, distant or hesitant, it’s an important signal! You should either ask verbally, or back off entirely.
If you ask directly and they shut you down, remain uncertain, or just don’t give you clear expressive consent, then you should back off straight away—and you may need to do some apologising.
Being obvious vs being subtle
Both verbal and non-verbal communication can be obvious:
“Can I kiss you?”
“You have beautiful lips.”
Neither is better than the other; it all depends on context.
What’s important is actually understanding what the other person is saying in response, and if the communication is subtle. If you don’t know each other very well, then there’s a real risk that you misread the other person.
On some decisions, a misunderstanding might not be a big deal. On others, it can be huge.
If you have any doubt at all, ask more directly.
When asking turns into harassment or assault
One of the problems with non-verbal communication is that the wrong type of touching, without consent, can be considered harassment or assault. That’s why asking is safer.
But even verbal asking can be a kind of harassment. If you keep asking someone over and over again if they want to kiss you, it’s not actually genuine communication anymore—it’s just harassment.
For asking to mean anything, we need to stop and listen—and the answer might be, “Don’t ask me that ever again! No!”
Asking questions to get to know someone
We don’t only ask people for things that we want from them.
We also ask people about their personal experiences, as a way to get to know them better.
Sometimes it can be hard to think of what to ask another person, so the inner and outer worlds concept can help us think of questions.
We can ask questions about their inner world:
- How are you feeling?
- What are you thinking about?
- What’s important to you?
- What do you remember?
- What do you believe will happen?
We can ask about their outer worlds:
- Who are your friends?
- Who are your family?
- What do you like to do?
- What do you do for work?
- Where do you come from?
It’s usually a lot easier to understand what someone wants if you know a bit about who they are.
(Although this isn’t always true. It’s possible to know someone well and yet have no idea what they want in a situation, and it’s also possible to be complete strangers but want exactly the same thing and be very clear with each other about it.)