Whose sock is this? Using questions to create better communication

Whose Sock Is This?

“We’re about to ban the words, ‘Not mine!’ from our house,” complained the young mother.


An interesting choice of words to banish, I thought when she first mentioned it.  Then she explained that “Not mine!” had become the stock answer whenever she asked any of the five children in the blended family she lives with a question like, “Whose sock is this?” in an attempt to get them to put it away.

My first advice was to give her some suggestions about how to change the current power struggle she’s living with.  It makes no sense to get into a power struggle with your children—they have so much more invested in being right than you do, and they’re willing to put much more energy into figuring out your foibles than you are.  You’re probably much too tired.

You don’t believe me?  Think of the hell you dished out every time you had a substitute teacher in high school.  Did even an ounce of gratitude that those brave souls were willing to venture into your classroom and attempt to keep your education moving forward ever enter your soul?  Or did you devote all of your energy to torturing and tormenting them, exploiting their every personality quirk for the sole purpose of being as completely annoying as possible?  Think of the names you had for one—we called one of ours “Machine Gun Kelly.”  Now the woman did  talk non-stop—but was that any excuse for cruelty?

So how do you get out of power struggle?  First of all, don’t judge or blaming yourself for falling into one.  It is the nature of being a parent, teacher, or any authority in a child’s or teenager’s life.  If you have fallen into their trap innumerable times, don’t worry, they will give you yet another chance to pick an easier and more rewarding alternative.

Once you’re in the power struggle—give up. You have to pick your battles with children and teenagers; once you’re in a power struggle you’ve already lost.  So let that one go and try a different approach next time—which will probably be only moments away. The time to avoid the power struggle is in the nanosecond that you head into it.  Once you’re into it, it’s tough to delete that particular file and start again.

When you feel the energy of a power struggle coming on, that is the time to head it off immediately.  How do you do that?  The easiest way is to turn it into a game.

This mother observed that since the sock was pink and much too small for her, the chances that it belonged to one of the female children in the household were high.  She was frustrated that they wouldn’t own up to it.  What would turning it into a game look like?

She could have pretended it was hers, as in, “Oh, a lovely pink sock!  I’ve been wanting one of these.  And it even has lace around the top!  Wow!   How did I get so lucky?”  The more she hammed this up, the more likely she would be have success with this approach.  If the child tried to take it back, she could playfully refuse.  “No, it’s so pretty I’m going to keep it!” until the child was begging for it.  “Oh, you want to put it away?  No, I’m not going to let you!” etc.

She could start a stash of such collected abandoned clothing and toys, hiding them until the children either missed them, in which case she could bargain to give them back only if they didn’t appear again on the hallway floor.  Or if the children didn’t miss them, they could be stashed in a garbage bag in the garage for a few weeks and donated to a local charity.

If picking up various clothes and toys is a recurring issue in this household, other games could be devised. She could have a contest to determine who collected the largest pile of clothes and toys from the common areas to their room.  The prize could be a piggy-back ride, an extra large dessert, an extra half hour of TV or later bedtime—whatever would motivate the children.

Then once one child had won with the largest pile, there could be another contest to see who could be fastest to put their pile away, toys in the place and clothes in the laundry or drawer.  Do you see the strategy?  Adding the second contest is designed to keep ALL the children in the household motivated to actually put the stuff away.  Otherwise once one child won, the others could lose their motivation to do anything with their own personal mountain of belongings.

Too much work, you say? You’re too tired?  They should just do as they’re told?  I have nothing to say to you, except to ask, how tired does it make you to fight and nag with them all the time?  How much work is that?  Putting a little creativity into changing things could be a great investment of your time in creating ease and happiness for all concerned.  If that’s not worth investing a little energy into, then you should definitely keep doing exactly what you’re doing!

There’s a deeper source of relationship trainwrecks underneath this simple example.

Think about the question, “Whose sock is this?”  Is it really a question or an accusation?  It ends with a question mark, but the speaker is vested in the outcome—she wants the child to “take responsibility” for their sock and pick it up.  From the child’s point of view, the outcome of admitting ownership of the sock would be a) to be made wrong for leaving it wherever it was and b) to be told to pick it up.  How well do you like being made wrong or told what to do?  Do your children like it any more than you do?  How well can a question that comes from that place actually work to create the desired change in behavior?

Now I’m sure that all of these principles of relationship ONLY apply if you’re under five.  After that, logic prevails and everyone sees the wisdom in doing it your way!  NOT!

How often have you asked questions-that-weren’t-really-questions of your adult relationships?  Does it work any better than it does with the pink socks?

A non-question question is anything that’s a statement with a question mark tacked on the end of it.  Underneath that statement is a decision, judgment or conclusion—in this case, usually that so and so always does such and such.  The non-question in the sock question was that the sock had to be picked up and by the child that had left it there.  A perfectly reasonable conclusion for a parent to make—but how likely are you to get any agreement or cooperation on this point of view from a child.

One example of a non-question question is, “You didn’t do x, did you?” when x is anything your partner does that you think they shouldn’t do.  That is not a question!  Underneath it is the presumption (read: conclusion, decision, judgment) that their behavior is invalid, stupid, ill-advised, and just plain wrong.

Similar is, “You’re not going to do x, are you?”

“Why did you x?” or “Why didn’t you x?” are similar accusatory non-questions.

In contrast, questions that are really questions can lighten up an entire relationship instantly.  People come from astonishingly different points of view.  Someone, even someone you know well, can be doing actions you simply cannot fathom for perfectly valid reasons that never occurred to you.

Questions that will illicit this information need to be framed differently, without an investment in the outcome or, really, any point of view at all about what the person says.

  • “What were you thinking when you did that?”
  • “Was something going on in that situation that I didn’t know about?“
  • “Were you trying to accomplish something that that I’m not seeing?”

are all ways you can ask a question.  A bit of brutal honesty is required for this to work—these questions will not work if you come from the presumption that the way you would have done it was correct and theirs was wrong.  If you can come from interesting point of view, there is a lightness in the question that doesn’t exist otherwise.

If you’re willing to ask where they’re coming from and really hear their reply, no matter how it differs from your own, the relationship can be strengthened and both of your worlds can be expanded.  How much fun could that be?







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