The Gift of Good Questions

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 - 6:04am

The Gift of Good Questions

When was the last time someone asked you an honest, open question — one that invited you to reflect more deeply on your own life, asked by a person who did not want to advise you or "fix" you but "hear you into speech," deeper and deeper speech?

For most of us, that's a rare experience.

In our culture, we tend to ask each other questions that are "fixes" or advice in disguise. "Have you thought about seeing a therapist?" is not an honest, open question!

But when we share a problem with someone who wants to listen and knows how to ask honest, open questions — such as, "Have you had a problem like this before? If so, what did you learn then that might help you now?" — something in us comes alive. Now we have a chance to learn from our own inner teacher, to tap into own inner wisdom.

That's why I love Denise Levertov's "A Gift." It's a poem that celebrates the power of good questions to evoke that which is deepest and truest in us. As Levertov says, "Yes, perhaps/this gift [of questions] is your answer."

Try it today with someone you care for: a family member, a friend, a colleague, an elder. I've never known a person who did not feel honored by the fact that someone cares for them enough to ask a meaningful question — and then listen deeply and well to whatever they have to say.

A Gift
by Denise Levertov

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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Such a rare experience indeed. When I listen deeply, I hear these unhelpful questions come up in myself and I have to practice awareness and NOT ask them. I find myself mimicking those people in my life who think they are listening well and offering caring thoughts when in fact they are heaving their own worry and advice all over me. With one family member in particular, I start off by saying, I'm going to share something with you. I know you care about me and may want to "fix it" but I just need you to listen. I see a bit of confusion on their faces and later comments come out relating to the fact that they haven't told me things because they don't want me to feel like they are telling me what to do. It's really hard to learn how to ask the good questions and even harder to let someone know that they don't.

Well said!

Yes! Those of us who have been through coach training learn how to ask empowering questions, trusting that the client has his/her own answers. Yet despite the training, it is an ongoing challenge to intentionally ask those empowering questions without leaning in to try to "fix" the problem.Yet because we care so much for our clients, we restrain and retrain ourselves to get curious and ask the client such questions and discover the answers together, through the client's own wisdom. It is an honor to witness these discoveries.

Well said!

I help lead a literature discussion group for caregivers at my local hospital and am always looking for ways to help people feel validated in their experiences. Thanks for this poem and this reminder that we all need to seek our own inner wisdom.There is an art to listening that I am always struggling with. I love thinking of questions as gifts.

How many of us have made the mistake of not asking the "right" questions or have not dared to put our inquiries out in the world? One of the greatest lessons I have learned in this abundant and beautiful life is to ask questions. I now ask questions that come from my heart and from my curious mind. I now listen to others who seek understanding in my company. It is such a gift to know that questions are inspired from the Beloved within us. We only have to take the opportunity to listen and to speak the truth from that deep and loving place.

Thank you! I hadn't read this Levertov poem before, and I love it!

There are some parts of this that deeply bother me. Maybe I'm making too many exceptions, but this disturbs me. If someone tells me they are suffering and I notice the symptoms of clinical depression, I'm going to ask, "Have you considered seeing a therapist?" I don't care if it's not "open and honest" although for the life of me I can't see what's "dishonest," a lie, about that question. I am not a therapist and am not qualified to treat anyone or let them treat themselves through a line of questioning. I am going to refer them to somewhere they can get help.

Next, I have been clinically depressed, and I can tell you that no line of questioning could have offered me any solution, no matter how carefully aware the questioner was. My mind was incapable of wisdom. It was miserably ignorant in its own self-loathing and nothing subtle would have changed it. To expect me, the blind, to lead myself out of the dark is a bit unrealistic.

Personally, I am grateful when someone tries to help. Why would I suspect that they were being superior or arrogant? In my world, it's innocence before guilt and my first idea is "they're trying to be helpful. Thank you for not being as close-mouthed and uncaring as the majority around me." Why is it so hard for people to accept that there are others who know more than they do, have more insight than they do, or are more wise than they are? That's one of the reasons I read. That's one of the reasons I ask questions--because I myself am ignorant and do not know the answers. Why should I have to re-invent the wheel just because someone is afraid to step on my inflated ego?

The author is making the distinction between giving advice and asking questions. Many of us who are "problem-solving" oriented are guilty of giving advice under the guise of asking questions. "Have you seen a therapist?" is a loaded question. A more direct approach is to say "You may want to see a therapist" or "If it were me, I might see a therapist." That way, your intention to offer advice is clear. But I agree with the author that asking truly probing, open-ended questions is a wonderful skill to develop.

'~~~you can, you must remain unseen.'

Not all questions are easily answered in one sitting, or even over a stretch of time. Wouldn't a "trick" of questioning be to ask a question that allows a person to go on thinking, even after you have left the scene? A question that prompts both pleasurable and non-pleasurable thoughts to come? Relishing the pleasant, and continuing to seek against or for the "why" of the not-so-pleasant? Aristotle supposedly said, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." We all have education, to some degree or another, regardless of whether it's formal or not. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how." To find the "why" of a life is a key to living it, even if the why never becomes crystal clear.

For the depressed person, or anyone else, for that matter...

I quote H.G. Lee,

"I see no gleam of victory alluring
No chance of splendid booty or of gain
If I endure – I must go on enduring
And my reward for bearing pain – is pain
Yet, though the thrill, the zest, the hope are gone
Something within me keeps me fighting on"

Wouldn't the greatest question be to ask what that "something" might be?

If I give my answer to a thought, then I might well ruin the other person's chances to gain a valid answer for his or her own self. If I ask, out of my own seeking, then what is that to the other person? It can be misleading.

And yes, I do continually search for my own "why," often. Sometimes just for the moment. Sometimes for eternity. What I do for the moment is for me. What I do for eternity is for everyone else. Both include the other.

What do you do? :-)