About ten years ago - possibly more - I learned the art of the neutral question. I learned it from a very insightful and inspiring artist - Liz Lerman - a renowned choreographer who had developed a “Critical Response Process” for artists. As part of the “Critical Response Process,” she determined that what was most helpful for artists would be to ask them neutral questions.
What is a neutral question? It’s a question that does not betray any judgment or criticism on the part of the questioner.
So, for instance - say there was a talk back after the recent performance of David Mamet’s China Doll with Al Pacino. And someone in the audience raised their hand and asked, “Mr. Pacino, why don’t you know your fucking lines? I paid $274 for this seat.” That is not a neutral question.
However, the question can be made neutral by phrasing it in this way: “Mr. Pacino, would you talk a bit about your rehearsal process for this play and how you felt working with David Mamet’s dialogue.” This is a neutral question. And will more likely get an informative response than the former phrasing.
You know the saying, you “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?” Well, in this case, we’re not trying to catch flies, but we are trying to get someone to talk about something that they might be defensive about. The way around that is neutral questions.
Say you’re dealing with a teenager. And they stayed out past curfew and came home drunk. First off all, you’re probably not going to get any answers out of them that night, right? They’re drunk. So, you (smartly) let them go to bed telling them that you want to talk in the the next day. Now, the next day comes and you want to say, “What the hell is wrong with you?” and “What were you thinking?” (which could be a neutral question if asked in just the right tone, but that’s a toughie). But neither of these are going to get you what you want - a reason, some answers, some insight as to how your kid could behave so irresponsibly. And some kind of guarantee that they’re not going to do it again. Right? So, here are some neutral questions you can ask that might, more effectively, get the conversation you want going.
“Would you talk a little about how you feel about your curfew?”
“Would you speak some about how you feel about drinking?”
“Would you talk a bit about how you feel about drinking being illegal for underage people?”
You might hear responses like, “I think my curfew is too early.” or “None of my friends have curfews.” or “I don’t see how it’s such a big deal. I like drinking. It eases the stress. It makes things more fun.” or “It’s not like I’m going to get arrested for drinking at my friend’s house.”
All of these responses are very revealing and offer so so so much to talk about. You can go into why you have the curfew that you have set, you could talk about the damage alcohol does to a developing brain. You should definitely talk about what stresses the kid is feeling that makes them what to drink.
Point is, you never would have gotten these responses out of your child by saying “What is wrong with you?” or “How could you do this to me?” or “Are you out of your mind?” These aren’t just un-neutral questions. They’re not even real questions. They’re attacks.
Neutral questions are useful not only with teenagers and artists, they’re useful with co-workers, spouses, staff…everyone really. Try it. I bet you'll get some people to talk.