How not to take the bait

What do you do when other people ask intrusive questions? This can apply to anyone, but it often happens with the people we love the most. They ask a question that we feel is none of their business, and we are often left with a feeling that not answering is rude—but what to do?

A young friend told me of the following conversation she had with her mother, and how frustrated she was at not knowing how to stand up for herself. Her mother regularly inquires about her sex life, and makes comments like, “You’re still a virgin, aren’t you?” Which might be understandable if my friend were 16—but she is 26 years old. Not knowing how else to respond, my friend takes the bait and starts defending the time she spends with her boyfriend, and feeling like a small child instead of the young woman she is.

So, what could she do instead of getting hooked in? A question I always ask myself is, “To what purpose does the speaker speak?” Conversation has different purposes at different times: to influence, to manipulate, to make wrong, to inform, to show off, and on and on. So a good place to start is to ask, “Why would her daughter being a virgin be important to her?” Some possibilities might include, fear of raising a grandchild; fear of judgment from her friends/church if her daughter ends up pregnant; having a self-image that says something like, ‘You must be a wonderful parent if you’ve taught your daughter to remain a virgin until marriage.’ There is really no way of knowing…unless we ask. So my friend might simply adopt a position of curiosity and say in a neutral tone, “Mom, you’ve brought this up on several occasions and I’d like to understand why my being a virgin is so important to you.” When someone repeats themselves it is often because they think they are not being heard—and to many, ‘being heard’ is a euphemism for ‘I want you to agree with me and do what I want you to do.’ One way to interrupt the repetition is to ask them to explain and then no matter what they answer is (“It’s something you should do, or you’d be a slut if you weren’t”) just say, “Okay thanks” and then move on to something else.

For years the part of me that wants to please and be liked thought I had to answer every question someone asked of me. Now I use this conversational tactic to listen for the possible underlying purpose and speak to that instead of the surface question that was asked—which could keep me right in a loop I don’t want to be in, and for which there is no way to ‘win’. By taking a position of curiosity and asking for more information or clarification, I’ve often ended up learning something that I might not have known if I hadn’t asked. And remember, taking the time to listen to someone is not the same as agreeing with them.

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