The Question Underneath the Question

About six months ago, one of my long-time clients left her corporate job to set out on her own as a freelancer. Now, every time my client talks to her mom, she gets this question: “How many hours are you working this week?”

Mom-questions can have a way of getting under a person’s skin, and this one is no exception. It may seem like an innocent topic, but hearing the same question every day or so can be a drag, and as my client says, “It’s not interesting to talk about!” She has tried to steer her mother away from this topic, she has answered in great detail, she has explained that every week is different, all to no avail. Mom keeps asking.

I started to wonder what “how many hours are you working this week” might mean, other than the obvious. It could, of course, simply be a request for information. It could also be something to chat about as you’re waiting for the waiter to come back with your iced tea. But if the mother and the daughter were characters in a play, the repeated question would definitely mean something more.

There is often—maybe even usually– some kind of subtext in what we say to others, and what they say to us. In this case, I suggested that her mother’s evident worry about billable hours may be a way to express the hope that she’s financially secure, and that this job change is working out (without saying all of that). 

When we get an idea of what the question-under-the-question might be, we can tailor our answer to try to respond to that real question. If we’re thinking about our intention, we can craft a response from that position. For example, “I want to reassure my mom that I’m doing just fine.” Or, “I want to establish a boundary with my mother about my work schedule.” Or, “I want to get her to state what her real question is, so we can talk about it directly.”

To me, the repeated question is a sign that something is unsettled. My client gets to decide how she wants to respond—and honestly, it could be that no matter what she says, this issue is just going to have to work itself out over time. But getting to the real question just might accelerate the process.

Are You Hiding?

The Goldilocks Zone

Ignite your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter for tips, tactics, videos, and techniques to hone your communication skills.

Pin It on Pinterest