The Asking Dilemma

Oct 8, 2020 | 3 minutes read

Tag: blog

The Asking Dilemma

What if in asking a question you changed the answer, and thus received information that was different than the information you had hoped for? Let me give you a simple example:


My wife loves me. My wife also loves Cheeseballs. At just a hair over 5’0 tall, my wife’s figure is nearly eclipsed by the gigantic Cheeseball container as I observe the small orange cloud hovering in our living room. Let’s say she’s enjoyed all but one of the cheeseballs, and it sits there in dusty and cheesy splendor. I’m wondering if she’ll offer me the cheeseball. Perhaps she is intending not to share this particular time. Perhaps she is actually quite willing to share, but is distracted by the process of obatining the cheese dust from the sides of the container and has forgotten I am in the room.

Let’s say for instance that she did not want to share. Let’s say this desire to not share is not particularly strong, but if sharing was a scale between -10 and 10, where a negative score indicates unwillingness to share, and a positive score indicates willingness to share, she was at about -1.

From my vantage point on the other side of the room, I cannot discern her particular willingness to share, but as soon as I ask “may I have the last one?”, the asking of the question may prompt her to agree to my request, despite not actually wanting to share. Maybe if I asked “were you hoping to share or should I get a new container?” it’s safe enough for her to simply say that she prefers to eat the last one. Of course, there is a certain strategy to selecting the question that least affects the true state of nature before you asked the question, but that is for a different article.

The Bus Stop

I have a friend who walks with me to the bus stop after work. Sometimes it seems like he’s walking with me out of obligation, and not out of a sincere desire or excitement to walk together. Now, if I were to ask “do you want to walk to the bus stop together or go separately?”, he almost assuredly would reply that he in fact, does want to walk together. But this could be because saying he would like to walk separately sends too strong a negative message. It’s most likely that he would like to walk together sometimes, but not all the time. But saying “I’d like to walk separately” might send the message that they don’t want to walk together at all; not now, and not ever again.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “whoa there… it’s just walking to the bus! What’s the big deal?” You’re absolutely right! However, I think this principle extends beyond simple and low stakes environment to more serious issues, settings, and relationships. These two small examples have elements of consent, emotional safety, power dynamics, and small-scale conflict resolution.

In the ecosystem of conflict-aversion and lack of communication skills, there aren’t opportunities for feedback, and most of the information is gained through implication rather than explicit expression.

Theoretical Framework

The principle is this: at time t0, there is a state, s0 of the people or objects in the environment. Now at t1, the question is asked, and there is a new state, s1, which may be different from s0. However, questions are most often posed to understand the state in which they are asked, not the state following their asking. Therefore, in contexts such as these, there is always “The Asking Dilemma”.

“The Asking Dilemma”: you may be uncertain about the true state, s0, or have an explicit description of s1, but not both.