I’ve been thinking and talking and reading and listening a lot about “trigger questions” lately. I think of trigger questions as questions that probably seem innocuous to the asker but that trigger some feeling in us that makes us feel hurt or offended or defensive.

“Is he sleeping through the night?”

“Is she walking yet?”

“When will you go back to work?”

“When’s the next baby coming along?”

“Do you rent or own your home?”

For me, “Are you going to go back to work?” is a big trigger because a part of me misses being a productive helping professional, but right now I enjoy being home with my children. When I asked my friends about trigger questions, I was surprised to learn that pretty much everyone has one. But amassing a collection of trigger was eye opening for me in a different way as well. I realized that these were questions I, myself, had asked many times! Questions like “Are you going to have more kids?” were very triggering to my friends who had struggled mightily with infertility. “Is she walking yet?” reignites anxiety about developmental milestones for those who have a child who’s not reaching them. I never asked these questions to be hurtful. And sometimes they’re not. But sometimes they are.

People have suggested all kinds of ways to respond to these triggering questions. One classic response is to turn the tables and question the questioner. “Why do you ask?” puts the questioner’s motivations at the center of the discussion. It’s a good way to deflect from the triggering subject. As a clinician, though, I am aware that the word, “why” can make people feel defensive. And people shut down when they feel defensive. So I might phrase the question “What makes you wonder?” And I hope to be able to ask it with an open heart. If I do that, I might open up the conversation and encourage the questioner to share some of his or her own experiences or motivations. Perhaps someone is wondering about whether my child is walking because they’d like children of their own someday. Perhaps they’re asking about how my baby is sleeping because they had an up-all-night baby and they want to offer support to an exhausted and frazzled parent. Maybe they think it’s a basic question and they just wanted to make conversation.

When we notice that another person’s inquiry triggers us in some way, we also have an opportunity to challenge ourselves and to grow. If I feel punched in the gut because a friend asks a question, and I answer honestly that I have really intense feelings in reaction to that question, it might just lead me down a path of healing through sharing my story with another person. If it doesn’t feel safe to process my feelings with another person, I can take that triggering question and explore it on my own. The point is that we deserve more than just a clever way to make these triggering questions go away, we need the time and space to explore and to heal.

And if we ask a question that feels simple to us, but ends up being complicated and maybe even painful to the person we asked, we could take that on as well. We could decide to ask these kinds of questions carefully and intentionally and we could hold space for the person as they really answer. We could be part of the healing that comes from honest connection.

After lots of talking and thinking and reading about how best to deal with these triggering questions, I have come to believe that as much honesty as we can muster is probably the best way to go. If we are hurt or offended by a question that we are asked, we can bravely and lovingly share our experience and give ourselves and the questioner the opportunity to grow.