> Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

Billy had a long, hard week at work. His chronic condition was kicking up, for one thing, so he wasn’t feeling his best. And he was in the middle of a project with a looming deadline that he and his co-workers were working diligently to meet.

On Saturday, he and his wife, Tara, did some work around the house and then ran errands together. Tara talked about her week, including some issues that had come up for her at work. As she talked, Billy listened, offering a few comments or suggestions here and there.

At one point, he mentioned that his week had been especially difficult. Tara nodded in acknowledgment, but was distracted by a call from a friend.

By Sunday night, Billy was feeling disappointed and frustrated. He had a lot on his mind, things that he wanted Tara to help him sort out. And yes, he even wanted to vent a little bit about how he was feeling physically, and get some support.

Showing interest

But Tara hadn’t seem interested, Billy thought to himself. And then he asked himself why he had come to that conclusion. It occurred to him that Tara hadn’t asked him a single question—how was your week? How are you feeling? How is the project going? And with no questions coming his way, he assumed lack of interest on her part.

Maybe I’m complaining too much about my health, he wondered to himself, and this is her way of telling me to keep it to myself. Maybe she’s tired of hearing about how bad I feel. Maybe she sees me as a constant complainer and she is taking a break.

Have you ever felt like Billy?

Tara wasn’t necessarily uninterested in how Billy felt, not at all. But Billy was waiting for her to show she cared by asking him questions. Without a question coming his way, Billy assumed lack of interest.

The result? A missed opportunity to communicate and to support each other.

And the lesson? Asking questions is important in a relationship. Here’s why:

A question shows your interest and concern. It tells the other person that they are on your mind and you want to know about what their life has been like, how they are feeling, how they are thinking, and what they might need from you. It’s a reminder that the two of you are a team.

A question implies an open mind. Asking a question also implies that the person asking the question is asking for information rather than making assumptions. This can help the person being asked to lower their defenses and be more open in return.

A question invites the other person to disclose. Some people are upfront about what’s on their mind, and they jump in and start disclosing. Maybe even demand to be heard. Others, like Billy, may need a signal from the other person that they are ready and willing to hear. Especially if their partner, like Tara, appears to be preoccupied or have other distractions.

A question breaks the ice. When you’re not sure what to say, or how to open a conversation, asking a question is a great way to get the conversation going. It’s a simple as, “What’s been going on with you?” or, “How was your day?”

A question leads to a deeper relationship. When we ask questions, we learn. That can include learning things we didn’t expect to hear, information that gives us insight into what the other person is thinking, feeling, experiencing. This, in turn, can bring you and your partner closer.

Questions invite questions in return. And that, folks, is the basis for a pretty good conversation!

Here’s what Billy said to Tara: “Honey, I’m not always sure if you’re interested in hearing what’s going on with me. That makes me wonder if you’re tired of hearing about my health or my other problems, if you think I am complaining, or if I’m boring you. It would really help if you would ask me a question. If you do, I’ll know you want to listen. And I’ll be an open book.” And then he added, “And I’ll ask more questions, too.”

Pay attention. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. And then maybe ask a few more. You’ll be surprised at what you learn. What a great way to show how much you care!

Share your best tip for improving communication with a loved one by adding a comment below.