ConflictInzicht, Issue 3, Oktober 2009

Just a Simple Question

Dorothy J. Della Noce

Questions have been on my mind a lot this week! First, while supervising an exercise in “helping strategies” for conflict professionals in training, I noticed how much those professionals focused on asking questions. In one round of practice, it would be safe to say that the professionals used most of their turns at talk to ask questions, to the exclusion of many other equally effective helping strategies. Then, in the course of keeping up with my professional reading, I noticed that the latest issue of Discourse Studies (2009, Volume 11, Issue 2) was a special issue entirely on questions and questioning in institutional practices. So, it seems like a good time to talk about the function of questions in communication --- especially for people involved in conflict and the third parties (managers, friends, family members, mediators, etc.) who try to help them.

By definition, a question is any statement or act that invites an answer (Dickson & Hargie, 2006, p. 122). Therefore, we ask questions to get answers. We may think of questions, then, as simply a matter of gathering content. This puts the focus on the skill of the questioner in forming “just the right question” to elicit the desired content. But questions also have a relational dimension (Tracy, 2002). That is, the process of asking (and answering) questions has an effect on the quality of the ongoing interaction between the two parties. These effects could be intended or unintended. My purpose in this column is to encourage reflection on the often overlooked relational effect of questions in interaction.

The Relational Effect of Questions

The process of asking questions can have both positive and negative relational effects. The positive effects are generally well-known. For example, questions are used to explore feelings, to encourage critical thinking, to express interest in the other, and to encourage involvement. Accordingly, asking a question often seems like a helpful and positive --- or at least harmless --- form of interaction. Yet, most of us have also had the experience of seeing questions met with resistance or defensiveness, or evolve into an argument (Tracy, 2002). This suggests that asking questions may not always be helpful, positive or harmless. In fact, research shows that asking questions can have a decidedly negative effect on the quality of interaction.

Tracy (2002) conducted an extensive study of the effect of questions in 911-calls (112-calls here in the Netherlands!). She discovered that questions negatively affect interaction when they threaten the “face” of another. The concept of “face” requires a bit of explanation. Generally, people wish to be perceived in a positive light, be appreciated, be included, be perceived as intelligent, competent, likable and good, and be free from imposition from others. These are called “face needs.” When face needs are threatened in the course of interaction, it is called a “face threat.”

Tracy (2002) found a number of ways that questions threaten face. First, questions can convey a negative attitude about the person answering, even if the attitude is not intended. For example, a question can imply disbelief in the story a speaker has just conveyed. This effect grows worse as more questions are asked. Generally speaking, “a list of questions free of any explanation often implies a lack of trust” (p. 144). Questions can also imply something negative about the personality or character of the person answering, such as the possibility that the person could be deceptive, sneaky, untrustworthy, or even immoral. When a questioner conveys such attitudes, it threatens the face needs of the answerer.

Second, Tracy (2002) found that questions can make the person questioned feel stupid. Again, asking questions in a sequence intensifies the effect. In a sequence, questions can convey that the speaker is too stupid to understand the preceding questions properly. Questions can also have the effect of insinuating that the answerer does not know what is normal or appropriate behavior. Asking follow-up questions that imply that the person answering did not give the appropriate or reasonable answer in the first place also threatens the face needs of the person answering.

Another effect of asking questions is the demonstration of power and status. A wide variety of studies of human interaction (in classrooms, doctor’s offices, courtrooms, and the like) illustrate that the person who is authorized to ask questions, and the person who asks the most questions, is the one with more position, power, or status in the interaction. This is not just an effect of the official positions people hold in institutions. It is an effect of the questioning process in general. In fact, simply to ask a question is to position the other as having to respond. Along these same lines, asking questions not only demonstrates who holds power, it also exerts power. Accordingly, asking questions is a strategy speakers use to maintain control of the pace and the content of an interacton (hence, their popularity in the courtroom!).

It is quite common to ask questions in the midst of conflict interaction. Whether involved in a conflict directly, or as a third party to help in someone else’s conflict, one naturally asks questions to gather information, show interest, and encourage discussion and reflection. But this discussion suggests that one must take care in asking questions, or the situation could actually be made worse. The danger is face threat. Because people in conflict are already struggling with such interactional experiences as diminishment, disempowerment, disregard, alienation, and suspicion, they are particularly vulnerable to face threats. Under these circumstances, even well-formed and well-intentioned questions can provoke resistance or defensiveness and evolve into argument.

The challenge, then, is how to achieve the positive relational effects one usually seeks when asking questions, without inviting the negative effects. Tracy (2002) suggests that there are two critical dimensions to asking questions in a helpful way while reducing face threat: (1) pay attention to context, and (2) use politeness strategies.

“Context” refers to the surrounding interaction. A question is just a form of speech in a single turn at talk --- it has little meaning or value outside of the interaction in which it is asked. In asking a question, one must be aware of what came before and also pay attention to what follows. It is good practice for a question to show some relationship to the conversation (or turn at talk) that immediately precedes it. This demonstrates listening and is validating to the speaker. To ask a question that bears no relationship to the preceding conversation (or turn at talk) can be disconfirming and disempowering. Likewise, one should also convey attention to the answers given, and build on those answers in the ongoing conversation. Again, it is disconfirming and disempowering to do otherwise. It threatens face.

Politeness strategies are also important. The general rule of communication is, the greater the risk of face threat, the more “politeness” one must show to the other. Two politeness strategies that can be particularly helpful when asking questions are pre-remarks and tentatives. Pre-remarks are brief explanations or justifications of the question, placed just before the question, to soften its effect. For example, “I did not hear that, could you repeat it?” Tentatives are words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “sort of.” These words can reduce the level of imposition or dominance implied by asking questions. For example, “Could you maybe turn off the water while brushing your teeth?”

In summary, while asking questions is a natural part of interaction, it does have relational pitfalls. The process of asking questions can have a negative effect on the quality of ongoing interaction, particularly by threatening face. One who asks questions can protect the face of the other by paying careful attention to context and by using politeness strategies. And of course, one can always draw on other communication skills to balance, or even minimize, the use of questions.


Dickson, D., & Hargie, O. (2006). Questioning. In O. Hargie (Ed.), The handbook of communication skills (3d ed.). London: Routledge.

Tracy, S. J. (2002). When questioning turns to face threat: An interactional sensitivity in 911 call-taking. Western Journal of Communication, 66(2), 129-157.


Latest News

Afgelopen december vond een vierdaagse Masterclass Transformatieve mediation plaats. Deze masterclass werd gegeven in twee blokken van 2 dagen, met een tussenliggende periode van ongeveer twee weken....
read more »
Onlangs is een belangrijk nieuw boek verschenen over Transformatieve Mediation: Transformative Mediation: A Sourcebook - Resources for Conflict Intervention Practitioners and Programs. Het boek wordt...
read more »

Blog Posts