Recently, I’ve noticed a change in how I ask questions. Especially personal ones, questions that someone might be reluctant to answer.
As an example, today I asked someone about her tattoo — she had some names tattooed on her foot. While the tattoo was in plain sight, I still feel it’s not appropriate to simply ask someone about it. So I approached it differently, by opening with “I hope you don’t mind me asking…”
It gives the person freedom to not answer (“Well, I do mind.”), but usually I will get an answer anyway. More often than not the answer will be preceded by “I don’t mind you asking at all,” which seems to show appreciation for asking the question in the first place. In this particular case, it was exactly what happened. She opened up about her tattoos, and talked lovingly about the persons the tattoos referred to. It was a very pleasant and powerful experience.
In some cases, I go one step further and add “and you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to.” This way, you can ask a question while showing your interest and curiosity, and empathy by appreciating the potential sensitivity of the subject matter. Still, you leave it up to the other person to decide whether to answer the question or not. It will make it easier for them to actually say “I’d rather not answer that” without feeling awkward about it. But again, usually I get an answer anyway.
When someone answers such a personal question, I will follow up with an honest “thank you” or “thank you for sharing that.” This conveys my appreciation toward the other person.
I feel that engaging in conversations in this way will make both me and my conversation partner feel good about the interaction, which is a worthwhile goal I reckon.