Bare In Mind

How to handle poor questions Part 1

Episode Summary

Dealing with Scripted Questions

Episode Notes

5. In part one of handling poor questions, I discuss one tool that is needed to handle any question.  Poor questions are common in everyday conversations and although, better questions can create better dialogue, sometimes it's how we handle them that can ultimately create it.  

We pretty much can recognise a poor question in a conversation, they ask them, we ask them.  It isn't necessarily something we are taught or actively try to improve.  So, how do we create dialogue when Yes/No questions are asked or scripted questions to people of colour are asked?  

I discuss two tools, the first one in part one and the second in part two that I have learned from reading books on journalism and verbal abuse.  Odd?  Yet, the tools from these two extreme forms of conversation lay a foundation in understanding creating good communication.  

I combine both tools and have modified these tools for everyday conversations.  I share with you the principles behind them so you can handle any poor questions that comes your way.  I also share with you my experience in using these tools in my daily life over the past 7 years.  

I’m T. Vyas, you can call me T became most people do.  I’m, as you’ve guessed, a person of colour who looks forward to chatting with you about some things identity, some things colour and ALL things Love!  Tune in Tuesdays for a new episode!  In the meantime, you can find me on Instagram @bareinmind.podcast

Episode Transcription


You're listening to Love How Brown Cow, episode number five.


A podcast about love, colour and identity, and we're driving yourself crazy is totally same and curable. Now, your host, T. Vyas.


Welcome to the podcast. Today, I'm going to talk about how to handle poor questions, and in the first four episodes, I talked about the common questions that people of colour get, and I wanted to preface this discussion for this episode, that discussions about race happen in everyday conversation, or in fact that they should happen in everyday conversations as opposed to a side conversation where we talk about inclusivity and diversity, and I think that that's where the real power in each of us lies is in our everyday conversations that indirectly touch on race.  And I think that that actually leads to a better dialogue and discussion about race. So in this episode and in the next episode, I'm going to discuss with you how to handle poor questions and from there, create a better dialogue about race, so then what do I mean by a poor question, and a general definition I have for poor questions is that the question doesn't influence dialogue in the conversation, and most of us know what a poor question is, it's kind of the closed questions, yes or no questions. So an example of this is, Are you okay? instead of asking: How are you?


Another type of poor question is the negative question, where, for example, you'd ask somebody, if you were at a party and somebody arrived, you would say: Well, why didn't you come with Peter and that's the negative way of asking: Why did you come alone? And the other type of poor question that I used to handle wasn't actually really a question, it was often statements people would make to me, but I would answer it as if they were asking me a question. So an example of this would be, I thought you were a vegetarian, and it wasn't really a question, they would just make a statement about what I was eating, and then I would respond with a big explanation of my food habits. And with being a person of colour I also got a lot of scripted questions, so in the first four episodes, I discussed some of these scripted questions, and one of them is: Where are you from?, followed by: Where are you really from? And then I would answer that in a very scripted way, so these questions were very common to me, and then I would answer basically in the same way for a really long time.


And one of the things I noticed in answering the scripted questions that I got was that I didn't feel good with the way I responded to these questions, I actually would feel very negative and very frustrated in how I responded to these questions. I was also very frustrated in the fact that I got some of these scripted questions a lot of the times, and I would drive myself crazy, I would go back and forth, well, I don't think I should be asked this question, but then I didn't like how I answered the question, and so I basically spent a lot of time driving myself crazy. And you're kind of driving yourself crazy for a couple of reasons, one is, you're still going to get these questions because you can't change another person and you can't change how they ask their questions.  And yeah, that's a futile attempt. And the second reason is, for me, I found that I also didn't know how to respond, I was responding in this scripted way and I was like, well, I would think that this is the only way I could respond, and when in fact that that wasn't true. So I'm gonna share with you two tools that I use regularly, and for this episode, I’ll be talking about the first tool and in the following episode, the second tool, and the first tool is about the changes internally inside you that kind of need to be there in order to create dialogue.


And the second tool is about the external action that is available for you to take in order to steer a conversation into more meaningful dialogue. And these tools come from a mini-research project from a bunch of readings, but also it comes from me applying it in my everyday life for about the last seven years. And from this experience, I've modified some of the tools and have gone through some of the ups and downs, so I will basically share with you the principles that I learned, the foundation of these tools so that you can handle any type of poor question that comes your way, no matter how it's worded, no matter how it’s said, and even no matter what the tone of voice is in which it comes at you.  In this first tool, I learned a lot from reading about verbal abuse, and it's kind of the extreme side of conversation, it’s actually not really a conversation, however, reading about it helped me understand some principles of communication, and the biggest thing I learned was that how somebody communicates is on them, and how I communicate is on me.  It may seem obvious that that's true, but actually in conversation, that's a very hard thing to actually apply, and so from one book in particular, it's called You Can't Say That to Me by Suzette Haden Elgin.


I learned a law that’s called Miller's law by a psychologist called George Miller. And this law is the law that you would need to embrace in order for you to steer a conversation into more meaningful dialogue, so it's kind of what you need to figure out internally before you can actually say or respond to something that someone says that you don't like. Miller's law is: you assume what the other person says is true. Now, when I first read this book and I read the book a couple of times, it was hard to grasp, you assume what the other person says is true. It sounds so simple, but in fact, when I was trying to do this, it was quite challenging and it was challenging one, just to even understand what to do in a conversation and then apply it. And so the best way to explain this law without actually reading the book two or three times is to actually explain it when you're not using it, which is most of the time.  Which was most of the time for me, I wasn't using Miller's law. And so I was answering questions like, where are you really from?, in a scripted way. The easiest way to know that Miller’s law isn’t in place and that you're not using it is to see how you feel in the conversation or even a delayed response after the conversation, do you feel negative about the person?


Do you feel negative about the experience? Do you feel negative about what you say?  And I noticed it, and for me, it was a delayed response, I would feel quite negative about the person, and actually I probably wanted to avoid the person after I would get questions, especially questions like, Where are you really from? or Where are you from from? And I also noticed this in other people, with my friends who are people of colour, they would sometimes post on social media: I got the question again - Where are you really from? After I already answered it. And that's also just an indication: you needing to vent about it to your friends that would understand. You can tell that you're not using Miller's law if you feel kind of that frustration, that negativity after getting whatever kind of question in a conversation. And for me, and I'm guessing probably for you too, is that that negativity stems from the conclusion we think about that question. So a lot of times when somebody would ask me: Where am I really from or any question like that, I would I think you're asking me because you want to know why I'm brown or why I'm in this country. And that's really where the negativity is coming from: it’s our own meaning that we have attached to this question.


And so if you look at Miller's law in reverse, meaning you're not using it, it means you don't think that what that person saying is true, so they're saying: where are you really from? And we believe that that person is asking, because what they really mean and what they really want is to know is why I'm brown in this country. And then what's happening is that we are drawing a negative conclusion about the person asking the question, we are saying that they're not really asking this question, they're asking another question and it's being disguised as this question. So our negative conclusion then is based on the simple fact that what that person is saying is a lie, and in Miller's law, we assume that what they're saying is true. So this actually means that we need to separate out two things: one is what we believe about the person and then, their language, and those are two separate things. So we can believe that the person is coming from a place of prejudice, but in conversation, we focus on what they are actually saying, their language, and in some cases, their language: where you really where are you from from, which is grammatically incorrect, but we are focusing solely on the language, and we forget, at least in the conversation, we forget, and we put aside what we believe to be true. And when we do this, it means we're just assuming what they're saying is true, we're not accepting what they're saying is true.


So when you put aside the fact that the belief that they may be coming from a place of prejudice, all your left is with their words. So, where are you really from? And we don't fill in the blanks. They're asking, where you're really from?, because I'm brown, where are you really from?, because they want know why I’m in this country. We don't fill in our thoughts and our meaning into it, we just look at the actual question. And this actually makes you a great listener, it’s when our own thoughts about what the other person is saying does not interfere and that is actually in essence, what Miller’s law allows you to do. It's putting aside your own thoughts and beliefs and hearing the words of the other person, so then if I just look at the language and someone asked me a poor  question: where are you really from? All it is, all it becomes, is a question about me, they are inquiring about me, and I can answer that question anyway I want, because then it just becomes this big open question about, Hey, they're asking about me. And that's it. And once you hear the words of the other person instead of your thoughts and an assumed meaning, you'll be able to steer the conversation into a different dialogue. And I'll be talking about this in the next episode.


And maybe one of the questions that you have is: Well, what if the person is coming from a place of prejudice? And over the years, when I've used Miller's law in conversation, what I have found to be true is that the person's communication is on them: how somebody communicates is on them, and how I communicate is on me. So, if someone is really coming from a place of prejudice and I still respond to the question without my own negative conclusions, it becomes revealed that they are coming from a place of prejudice, and that communication is on them for them to reveal it, not for me to assume that that's where they're coming from. And it’s up to them to reveal that's where they're coming from, and I'll have to say, after doing this for a number of years, I would say about 75% of the time, the person has communicated poorly and they're not coming from a place of prejudice, they're coming from a place of poor use of the language, and the few times, the other 20% or so where somebody does, it gives me more information about the person when they do in fact reveal that they are asking that question wanting to know why I'm brown in this country, and that communication and responsibility ends up falling on them,


So, I'm gonna leave you with a quote by none other than the psychologist George Miller, he says in his article Giving Away Psychology in the 80s: “And the most powerful stimulus for changing a person's mind is not a chemical, it's not a shock, it's not a baseball bat, it's a word.” I'll check back with you next week.


Thanks for listening. Tune in next Tuesday for another episode. And in the meantime, check out Instagram @lovehowbc.