Vincent Barr    Writing    Reading    About

On Prompts

To prompt is to assist or encourage (a hesitating speaker) to say something.

To prompt is to invite to dinner a guest that normally would not have a seat at the table. Ironically, this guest, and others like them, are the ones that we would most like to have join us.

Imagine that I ask you the following question.

“Hey, how is your day going?”

Think about your answer.

How long did it take for you to respond? How many potential responses were within your likely range?

We often respond to this question without reflecting on how our day has been (‘It’s fine, thank you’), or shortly after dismissing the highs or lows that immediately come to mind and opting for a more neutral answer (‘Not too bad, you?’).

You could argue that people asking this question don’t actually care about how your day is going. It’s a social lubricant. It’s an insincere question with the good intention of making both people feel acknowledged, quickly.

That’s fair.

But, in that case, why ask a question at all? Why not say, ‘Hi, have a good day,’ instead.

Let’s continue this discourse by assuming that you’d like to be the type of person who, more often than not, asks questions purposefully and intends to listen to answers. After much practice, you rarely ask, ‘how is your day going?’ without meaning it, and you rarely ask the question at all as you’ve found prompts more useful.

Now, imagine that, instead of asking you your how your day is going, I ask:

  • What was the worst part of your day?

  • What part of your day restored your faith in humanity?

  • What part of your day do you keep revisiting in your head?

  • What’s one thought you had today that you think I would judge you for?

You might need a second to think about your answer.

You might need, or choose, to reflect on your day, and how it’s actually going, or, in talking through your answers, come to a general conclusion (‘My day is going fine’) with more context (‘But I keep replaying how I felt on Saturday when I tripped over my shoelaces, fell down three flights of stairs, and was then rescued by my neighbor whom I would elope with two hours later’).

‘How is your day going’ is a fair question, but it’s not a useful prompt for it does not invite under-exposed emotions, experiences, feelings, thoughts, or moods to the conversation like the prompts above do – and that’s what we’re after.

I believe that, for better or worse, people often need permission. Permission to share, permission to do, permission to adjust the temperature in the room.

If I ask you how your day is, you may not feel that you have permission to investigate the highs and lows of your day. If, instead, I ask you how bad your day was, then you can tell me precisely how bad it was and why without feeling like you’re burdening or oversharing. If I ask you how great your day was, then you can tell me how precisely how great your day is and why without feeling like you’re bragging. In the process, you may also realize that your day wasn’t so bad after all, but there were a few events that made it feel as such.

If we ask good questions, if we prompt people, then we will get better answers and have more intimate conversations more often.

Questions create space for answers, but they don’t give permission.

Prompts grant permission.

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