Can I Ask You a Question

How many times have you either; heard, or said this?


Some of you may have been corrected, that “can” is physical capability, where as “may” is for permission. But that isn’t the real issue with this common phrase.


Firstly, this itself is a question; I wasn’t able to stop you from asking that question, so what makes you think that I can stop you from asking the next question?


Has a “no” ever really stopped anyone? What comes next after a “no” is, “but I just wanted to ask …” and there is the question. So, it gets asked anyway, regardless of the answer.


Some will say that this is a case of “being polite”, but is it really?


Why do people ask this question?


Well, it’s probably not at all what you think. This is a bit of game play, a bit of simple psychology.


Here is what we know, when people agree to, and commit to, doing something, they are much more likely to follow through.


Studies have shown that when people were simply asked to do something, such as place a sign in their yard supporting a cause, they were likely to say “no”. However, when they were first asked about the cause, and when they agreed with the questions regarding the cause, they were much more likely to say “yes” to the yard signs.


So, once you get a positive confirmation, you are much more likely to continue to get positive responses.


Both sales people and attorneys are very familiar with this phenomenon, and they use it to their advantage. They begin with simple questions, that they know the answers to, and that they know people will feel compelled to answer positively. Then they advance to more complex, less obvious, questions, leading the conversation to get the positive outcome that they want.


Think about it, if I asked you for a “loan”, I would expect that your first reaction would be, “how much?”, not “yes”.


What about the more general, less offensive questions, such as, “what time is it?”, or, “can you tell me how to get to …?”, “how was your day?”, or, “what’s for lunch?”. Why don’t we begin those questions with “can I ask you a question?”?


Why is it that some questions require permission, that is two questions, while others don’t?


When people begin with a “yes”, they feel committed, they feel as if they have already agreed. At that point saying “no” actually feels like a reversal, it feels as if you are acting dishonestly.


This isn’t as much a polite question as it is a manipulative one.


Did you know that you were using psychology, and having it used against you?


So, what are people really trying to ask, with this first question?

  • Do you have time for me right now? If not now, then when?

  • Do you mind giving me some of your attention?

  • Do you mind giving me some of your expertise?

  • If I ask you a personal question, will you answer without judgement, or bias?

  • If I ask you a personal question, will you be discreet, and not repeat the conversation?

  • If I ask you a personal question, will you not take offense, that is, if you feel that this question is inappropriate, or too personal, will you forgive me in advance?


Some questions about the question.

  • Is this question going to be, about you, or about me?

  • Is this question going to be, personal, or business?


As you can see in order for that first question to have any real meaning, and not simply be manipulative, there is a great deal of information that is required.


If I, or you, don’t know what is being asked, then how can we possibly give a meaningful answer?


I don’t know about you, but I don’t see the need to ask, and or answer, meaningless, time wasting questions.


Many people aren’t fully aware of, or comfortable with, their reasonable responses.


You may ask; however, I always have the right to answer,

  • I don’t know

  • That really isn’t any of your business

  • That’s private

  • I’d rather not say

  • I don’t feel comfortable commenting


And yes, those are all valid answers.


Also, if I do choose to answer, you may not like what you hear. The answer that I give may not be the answer that you are looking for.


As for you, you don’t have the right to continue questioning me just to get “your” answer, that is, the answer that you “want” to hear.


You don’t have the right to be; confrontational, or intimidating, or bullying, again, just to get “your” answer, the answer that you “want” to hear.


You get to ask the question, I get to answer it. If you want me to answer your question the way you want it answered, here’s an idea, ask yourself, not me.


Once the question has been asked and answered, you may either;

  • Ask a follow up question

  • Ask a clarifying question, or,

  • Accept the answer given, and move on.


Questions and Answers Challenge

This week’s challenge for you is to pay attention to the questions that you ask, and that are asked of you.


  • Stop playing games

  • Stop asking meaningless questions

  • Know how to ask questions

  • Know how to answer questions – your rights to answers

  • And, above all, stop asking “Can I ask you a question?”


Let me know if you notice any difference in your relationships. How you deal with others, and how they deal with you.


Good Together: your guide to healthy, happy relationships

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