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Why Not To Ask: “What’s Wrong?”

You can’t expect to get the right answer if you keep asking the wrong question. And “What’s wrong?” is exactly that kind of question. Not only does it not provide a safe passage to finding a resolution, quite the contrary: it only makes things worse!  

Driven by an honest willingness to help, many people think they can efficiently resolve any problem if they ask what’s wrong. But more often than not, it ultimately backfires with silent treatment or a simple response like “Nothing” or “I’m fine.”

Stay with us and learn how to communicate effectively without asking the dreaded question “What’s wrong?”.

man asking what's wrong

Why it doesn’t work?

You’ve probably found yourself in a situation like this: You notice that something is off with your partner or your best friend. Or perhaps there is some tension at your workplace.

As a result, your first impulse is to ask: “What’s wrong?”.

And while the underlying intention behind it is completely benevolent (“Let’s see what the problem is, so that we can fix it”), you’re often puzzled when you face yourself with a cold or defensive reaction.

So why doesn’t it work? Let’s step back and examine it more closely.

On a basic level: “What’s wrong?” can easily be seen as a closed question with a negative underlying tone. It presumes a bad situation and negatively frames the conversation from the start.

When somebody is already anxious, that question can push them into full-fledged overwhelm. The more you insist on an answer, the more panicked and nervous they will become.

This question not only triggers unnecessary anxiety by asking what’s wrong (even if there wasn’t anything at all), it can also act as a subtle-veiled accusation, resulting in victimizing the other person. Result? A defensive action as a counterattack.

communication issues

What happened?

What to ask instead, you may wonder? There is one question that ultimately works wonders in situations like this.

Instead of “What’s wrong?”, ask “What happened?” Explain why you’re asking at all. What indicated something might actually be bothering them? It might sound something like, “You seem far away” or “You seem preoccupied.”

It is clearly more open-ended, doesn’t have any negative connotations to it, and if asked successfully, can significantly contribute to getting helpful answers.

Show genuine interest and willingness to help by asking what happened. You’ll immediately notice the shift in others’ behavior: no defensive postures or withdrawal at all!

“What happened?” gives the other person an opportunity to tell their story in a serene atmosphere, without fearing that they will be judged for it (unlike the whole “what’s wrong” accusatory vibe). They can share their experience which you can relate to, and as a result, you can offer them some potential solutions for the problem at hand.

As soon as you get your answer to what happened, you can proceed with another very useful question, such as: “Is there anything I can do to help?”. The answer to this question will be your guideline to resolving the issue in the best way possible.

girl asking her friend what's wrong

How to act?

But, hold on, we’re not done yet! Don’t think you’ll mend up everything if you just ask what happened.

As in every communication, there is the obvious verbal communication channel (yes, those dreaded questions), and subtle non-verbal communication, your body language.

When somebody is distressed, your words should mirror your actions. So, pay attention to how you behave in such situations.

Here is how you can show you’re willing to help and that you really care.

Focus on embodying calmness yourself. When somebody isn’t well, it’s most helpful to act as a safe anchor for them, metaphorically speaking. Ride the waves of emotional distress with the other person and get focused on co-regulation.

Co-regulation will help you to get the other into a more stable state. Then they can openly discuss all the issues without feeling victimized or on the defensive.

careful listening

Make a safe space

Create a safe ambient where the other person can willingly share his experience. Here is how you can do it:

  • Will the other person prefer eye contact or sitting side-to-side, with no eye contact? If you’re not sure – ask!
  • Sit calmly, without action and no-hassle movements.
  • Breathe slowly.
  • Use a calm voice.
  • Listen carefully and show you’re present.
  • You can occasionally empathize without a word – a sigh is all it takes.
  • If you have a relationship where touch is considered appropriate and welcoming, go for a light touch in the right moment (example: an arm on the back).
  • Don’t bombard them with too many questions or unsolicited advice.
  • Whatever you do, don’t get on the hostile side with criticism (“I told you so!”). It may cause a complete withdrawal.

And, most importantly, become aware and manage your own emotional state while dealing with all of this. You have to keep your boundaries firm and strong if you don’t want to become overwhelmed.

Once the other person feels safe and opens up to you little by little, you can start by asking more questions and offering some valuable advice. People are very willing to receive insights and accept advice as soon as they get a safe space to vent out.

support and empathy

Once you convert that dreaded question “What’s wrong?” into “What happened?”, you’ll lay down the foundations of a civilized and calm conversation, where anyone can share information without fear of being ostracized. If you also implement the co-regulation techniques we’ve mentioned above, you’ll notice how quickly you can get to the bottom of every problem, without sacrificing your relationship with the other person in the process.

Become a better communicator!

At A Steady Space, we know the art of successful interpersonal communication. Nobody is born with perfect communication skills. And while some people are more talented at it, others struggle with poor communication that leaves a huge mark, on their private or professional life, and many times on both.

Whether you’ve been asked what’s wrong, or you’ve been asking that with no success, now you can learn how to turn your wrong into right with A Steady Space!

We are ultimately dedicated to helping you improve your communication skills in every area of life.

Empower your communication with A Steady Space!  

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