Close relationships are the center of a happy life. And while each of us wants to feel connected to others, often our words, actions, and non-verbals don’t seem to pull us closer to others. I want to talk about “passive questions” – a kind of interaction that can be tough to deal with in any relationship. Let’s talk about what a passive question is, how we tend to fall prey to passive questions, and how we can understand them differently so we can help restore conflict.

Spotting Passive Questions

A genuine question is something people ask with the desire to know more. Questions are based in curiosity and can feel collaborative and clarifying. A “passive question”, however, is an emotional statement hidden in question form. It’s not really a question. Here are some examples:

“What are you doing over there?”

“Why would you do that?”

“Can’t you see I’m trying?”

“Didn’t you know that would hurt me?”

The list goes on.

Giving in to passive questions

The first thing we feel pulled to do, almost compulsively, is to answer the passive question. But there’s something else that happens when we are asked a passive question. We risk engaging in a conversation without acknowledging our emotions. We might fire back with a passive response:

  • “What was I supposed to do?”
  • “I don’t know!”
  • “Why would you ask me that?”

This conversation can quickly spiral into a heated or cut-off exchange that doesn’t help us move forward.

Emotion that isn’t acknowledged is difficult to work with. We cannot have direct, reparative, and healthy interactions without understanding our emotions in a different way.

Understanding passive questions

A passive question is a way of expressing a scary emotion. For some of us, certain emotions were handled poorly in our earliest relationships. We learned that our anxiety, or anger, or sadness would overwhelm our parents or drive them away. The child learns not to talk about these emotions, but to instead push them out of awareness to avoid upsetting or destroying the relationship.

So when you or a loved one asks a passive question, it’s likely he or she is experiencing an emotion that feels unsafe to express. They ask the question to try to not push you away with their anger, anxiety, or sadness. Instead of naming and feeling their emotion, a passive question places the asker in the back seat of their emotional experience. It also places the receiver in a conflicted place – trying to intuit the emotion of the asker, and also trying to answer the question, not authentically, but in a way to help calm the asker down.

So when you or a loved one asks a passive question, it’s likely he or she is experiencing an emotion that feels unsafe to express.

How should I handle passive questions?

Flag. A healthy response starts with recognizing and understanding the passive question as an expression of an emotional need, rather than a direct attack of your behavior.

Time out. Try slowing the conversation down: “ok, time out” or “I think something just happened there”.

Tell the story. Notice and describe what you saw happen in the interaction and also within you. “I was trying to help you with the plates, and when I reached over you asked me that question. I feel ashamed, like I did something wrong.”

Invite the scary emotion. With your understanding that this could be a scary emotion for the asker to express directly, invite it: “You sound angry” or “I want you to tell me what happened for you”

This is no easy task. It’s hard to change an emotional pattern between two people. It’s easier to not rock the boat. It takes courage, empathy, and self-control. But my sense is, if we never rock the boat, passive expressions and responses continue to cause difficulty and disconnection in relationship.

Following the steps above might be just what your relationship needs in order to start having a different, more direct, conversation.

I want to help you move in this direction. Send me an email. Let’s set up an initial free consultation so we can talk about how passive questions impact your relationships and how you’d like to change.

Connor McClenahan, PsyD
Connor McClenahan, PsyD

I help lawyers and other professionals overcome difficult emotional patterns and find clarity in their lives.