I have always been the type of person to ask questions. I crave knowledge and understanding. I live for truth and transparency. My favorite question has always been and will continue to be “why?”
“Why” is a very powerful and telling question. It seems like it would be simple. You ask why and someone gives you the reason. And yet, there is a second very important component to asking the question and that is understanding how to read the answer.
I was raised in a very abusive home in which my parents ensured they altered my perception of reality. They would use my inquisitive nature to their advantage with emotional manipulation and truth distortion. On top of my home environment, I was also a student of the public school system. A system which thrives on the “do as you’re told” model.
Between these two environments, I was still standing firm constantly asking why. But unfortunately, I did not know enough to understand the answers.
When I asked my parents why, I was met with subtle personal attacks, statements that informed me I was a problem or that I was broken. Belittled and threatened, it silenced me, keeping me from seeking deeper.
At school, I was punished for asking why, told I was a “trouble maker” or “difficult.” Other students would mock me, ironically calling me “stupid” for asking questions or I was considered “nerdy” for wanting to know more, to the point that I was frightened to speak.
I knew to ask why, but I never knew how to read the answers. Everyone encourages you to ask. It sounds good and builds trust among authority. But where is the rest of the picture? Here I want to give you a list of red flags that can help you decide whether the answer to your inquiry is trustworthy, positive, uplifting and well-intentioned or abusive, blinding and a technique to silence you.
Red Flag Responses
Attack of your character. This is usually the first tactic used by those who wish to silence you and discourage any further questioning because it is easy to miss and very effective. By answering your question with a response which is directed at you, your thoughts or your character, the person switches focus from themselves and points your thoughts directly at you, throwing you off balance and leaving you to think you are the problem.
These responses can be through words but are even less difficult to decipher through tones. Tones that imply you are less intelligent, difficult or an inconvenience or that leave you feeling like they are more important than you, are a huge red flag, no matter what their words may say.
Phrases like: “Why don’t you ever listen?” “You should all ready know why.” Or “why do you always have to waste time with questions?” are all responses which shift the focus from the person you are questioning right onto you.
Limiting additional questions. This is a big one in politics or public authority like teachers. They open up “dialogue” by asking for questions but then cut off further questions insisting that they do not have time or that the questions are not important to other people. Those who sincerely want you to understand why will take the time to ensure that you have no further questions, even if that means rescheduling to continue the discussion.
Responding with questions. Abusive or controlling individuals are almost like salesmen. They enjoy holding up a mirror to reflect all questions right back to you. Much like attacking your character, this keeps the spotlight off of them and puts it anywhere else, confusing the inquirer and ensuring that they never have to offer information.
If asking why is met with, “why nots” and “why do you thinks,” then you can be sure they do not have a legitimate or genuine reason. Transparent and emotionally healthy individuals answer questions directly, not with additional questions.
Cookie-cutter responses. There are a handful of answers to the question “why” that I refer to as cookie-cutter responses as they are used across the board, in a variety of avenues by a variety of individuals. Sometimes the responder genuinely believes in these responses as they were never taught to question or think outside of the box and other times people using these phrases are abusive, unhealthy or hiding something. These responses are things like:
- “Because that’s just what you’re supposed to do” or “that’s just the way life is.”
- “Because we have always done it this way.”
- “Because so and so told us to” or “Because I said so.”
If you receive a cookie-cutter answer, it is time to look for another source, look into your own beliefs or dig a little deeper for responses.
Withholding information. Those who do not want others to question them usually feel more powerful or obtain more control through hoarding information. If you ask why and they seem hesitant to answer or leave you feeling more confused than before, then they are probably withholding pertinent information to your question.
Green Flag Responses
There are those who genuinely want others to ask questions, to understand why and to challenge their way of thinking. These are the people of whom everyone should strive to surround themselves. These are emotionally mature and transparent individuals who believe everyone is equal and everyone is valuable. Their responses are usually one of the following:
Encouraging more questions. Transparent people who want you to understand and reach further are more likely to encourage you to ask as many questions as you wish. They will not cut you off or use tactics to scare you into silence.
Answering directly. They also will answer questions with a direct response appropriate to the question. You will not feel like you are getting the run around or leave the discussion confused. They want to give you straight-to-the-point, thorough answers.
Offering resources. Healthy individuals will not withhold information or stifle your questioning. Rather they want to give you as much information as they have available, including offering you additional resources to seek further. They clearly have nothing to hide and nothing to hoard.
“I don’t know, but let’s find out.” My favorite green flag responses are from those who wish to grow together. Someone who says “I don’t know” but insists you move forward anyways is not working in your best interest. However, one who admits they do not know why and wish to work together to find out prior to making any decisions forward, or those who encourage you to pursue more knowledge on your own are the ones who want you to ask why, who want you to feel comfortable in the answer and who are willing to help you grow and learn as an equal individual.
The question “why” is a powerful one. It can transform the way we live our lives and alter the perception of those around us. It launches radical thinking, mold-breaking and world-altering actions. Abusers and power-seekers know this and fear this and for that reason, they thrive on manipulating their responses.
In order to live in our personal truth and continually seek out answers, we must go beyond simply asking why and learn how to interpret the responses, always pushing forward with open minds and hearts while guarding ourselves from toxic individuals.