Respond to Life-Draining Questions in Uplifting Ways


In the realms we straddle of motherhood and management, LeaderMoms are frequently asked questions that are problematic, and our awkward attempts to answer them can unintentionally feed the biases we need to battle. We hear from our panelists that the most common question they get is “How do you do it all?” We too often take that question seriously. Our autopilot responses explain that we either (A) can have it all (delusional) and work crazy hard and smart to do so, or (B) justify why we haven't figured out how to have it all yet still managed to achieve some non-harmful, adequate functioning.

Other life-draining, unhelpful and hurtful questions sound like this: "How do your kids put up with your travel?" "How does your partner like you working so late?" "Who takes care of the kids when you are on call so much?" And we do the same thing to MomLeaders. “Aren’t you bored all day?” or “Don’t you mind being financially dependent?”

None of these questions open doorways to connection, insight, vitality, wisdom, or delight. None builds bonds of understanding or appreciation. They set us up to feel guilty or defensive or somehow wrong; imagining that some mystical woman in the other part of town has figured out not only how to do it all but how to do it all so well that their kids and/or partner feel great about it!! And in our state of inner guilt, defensiveness, or wrongness, we fumble and justify and often leave feeling worse—bad about ourselves and worried about the choices we've made. It’s impossible to justify your whole life in a parking lot or in a cocktail party conversation, and it feels crappy to be asked to do so. And our awkward and fumbling responses often set us up to unintentionally feed and reinforce biases. “Ah, just as I thought. She is struggling, as my subconscious expects her to be!”

How can we respond to unskillful questions in a way that promotes understanding? When we feel the need to defend ourselves and explain the logistics of our lives, let’s pause, refrain from defending ourselves, and try one of these three things instead.

Bring a little humor.

Sometimes there is power in treating very serious things lightly. Without excessive sarcasm or vitriol, a humorous response makes the point that an absurd question deserves an equally absurd answer. If you can access humor, you are not taking the inquiry personally. 

  • "Oh, I leave the kids with random strangers, of course." 

  • "I only married my partner for the money anyway so who cares what she/he/they think."

  • "I bribe the kids with massive gifts."

  • “I drink on flights.”

  • “I left them with a case of boxed mac and cheese.”

Invite a do-over.

Our second response is about leading with resilience, with a kind and human awareness of unconscious biases that is delivered in a way that can engender growth, capacity and actually-helpful curiosity. It is about leveraging our energy toward a good outcome in order to facilitate engagement between ourselves and others, and engagement in our shared mission, whether that's getting through the weekend or getting through the third quarter well. Imagine how powerful it would feel to say something like this: "We've got to learn to ask better questions. Here are some questions I'd rather answer…

  • 'When this is all going well for you and your family, what does that look like?' 

  • 'What gives you the energy to do what you do?' 

  • ‘What's the best wisdom you can share about travel and home and work and love?'

  • ‘What enables you craft a rich, full life?’

Just decline.

To the questions that really are mean-spirited, from those you suspect really don't want to grow with you or learn from you, we suggest this: 

  • "That's not a question worth answering...I RSVP no to this one.”

  • "Here's one I'm thinking about right now, 'What would make this a conversation worth having so that neither you nor I feel like we are wasting time?'" 

And then stay quiet. Let the question hang there. Watch them feel what they feel. And see what might change. Maybe nothing. Maybe anger or embarrassment come up. Maybe they walk away. Or maybe the exchange has planted a seed, one that triggers in that other person the possibility of a better way. No matter how they respond, however, you will have done yourself a service. The service of treating yourself, your time with respect while opening a door you walk through without feeling diminished or scarred but rather emboldened, protective and powerful.

Questions are doorways and we can learn to shape any one moment by choosing to change the nature of the question. Change it to one that not only addresses the issue but takes that issue and expands it to move us and them (our children or neighbors or teams) in the direction of our better selves, and to more conscious understanding of each other.

Catherine Flavin