Questions are powerful. Asking them often seems more valuable [to me] than insisting on answers. It’s the questions that redirect my attention from one thing to another. Questions fired off one after the other without time to answer quickly find me feeling backed into a corner, or attacked and frustrated. Questions themselves are not to blame for any of that; it’s how they are used, and with what intent. If I am listening, they can also quickly alert me that I am being misunderstood. I am learning to practice deep listening even when I feel emotionally attacked, or unexpectedly cornered by someone else’s aggressively expressed agenda. (I’m not saying I find it easy, but I often find it successful for putting challenging discourse back on a civil, comfortable foundation.) The most interesting thing about practicing listening deeply is that I end up… listening. Hearing more. Understanding more. Feeling more compassionate and level-headed. Feeling empowered and safe. Once I’m in that place, it becomes a simple thing to ask a question. No animus, no aggression, no passive-aggressive tit-for-tat punishment or emotional bullshit; I am able to ask a reasonable, compassionate, interested question that may actually result in needs being met, and a greater shared understanding being reached. It’s the whole point of a question, actually.

Who's 'right'? The ducks or the waiting cat crouched in the grass?

Who’s ‘right’? The ducks or the waiting cat crouched in the grass?

Questions are powerful. My results vary, of course, because sometimes it is the very feeling of power, itself, that has fueled whatever drama of the moment exists between human beings – and some people don’t want to ‘give up their power’, and perceive any power in anyone else’s hands as a direct threat to their own. It’s a weird sort of emotional greed. I don’t know quite what else to think of it. Fearfulness at its core, probably – I’ve been so terrified of being powerless, myself, that a single question directed with insightful compassion directly at the heart of whatever was truly bothering me could cause real rage; being visible and understood wasn’t what I was after, I only wanted to feel powerful (and I was, in that moment, willing to get there at the expense of someone else’s feeling of emotional safety). I find it, now, a very unhealthy approach. Giving up needing to ‘be right’, giving up needing to feel powerful (not the same thing as feeling empowered!) and practicing authenticity, self-acceptance, and awareness are important stepping-stones to being able to listen deeply (practicing, practicing!), and ask questions with more compassion, and without attacking (also requiring practice).

If I feel flooded, how do I find firm footing to maintain a feeling of safety?

If I feel flooded, how do I find firm footing to maintain a feeling of safety?

Based on careful observation, the vast majority of disagreements are not at all what they appear to be, and it seems rare that participants in dialogue have actually taken time to ensure they have shared definitions of terms, respected fact-based ground rules for the discussion – and a shared purpose in asking and answering their questions. Conversation is so much more pleasant and fulfilling when it is built on sincere connection and genuine receptivity to another person’s thinking. I’m not much interested in arguments, they take time away from intimacy, affection, and connecting deeply with ones fellow humans. This journey is too rich for strategic bullshit, cautious diplomacy, and game-playing! There are stories to tell, adventures to share, parables to teach with, and love notes to slip past the rigidity of our work lives – all so much more important than arguments built on strategy, mud-slinging, and bogus assumptions, all seeking to persuade rather than to learn, grow, or inform. Opening the door to something more sometimes takes little more than a question.

Are you okay?

Are you okay? How are you feeling? What do you need that I can provide?

Unfortunately, questions are also handy emotional weapons. What a shame. What a waste of precious mortal time. I am learning to face such attacks with a new tool; I listen. I’ve stopped focusing on delivering an immediate answer ‘to defend myself’; if I feel attacked, defending myself is probably pretty pointless, because there is something more going on. Instead, I remind myself that this other human being made not have been fully frank with their intent, their needs, or the purpose of their question. They may not have a similar understanding of the topic being discussed as I do, myself. I listen. I take a deep breath – or several – and listen. I am learning – and practicing – letting go of that attachment to ‘being right’ that is so often part of this very human experience, and reminding myself not to take this other human being’s experience at all personally. I listen more. I am learning – and practicing – talking less. It turns out that it is not at all painful to listen. It sucks to ‘wait to talk’, however, so learning to listen (practicing!) requires a commitment to some verbs, and considerable beginning again. (I interrupt rather chronically, partially because I have a brain injury that makes it harder not to, and partially because I need more practice not interrupting.) I find it helpful, when listening deeply, to ask a question when it is clear that a response is expected; this can help me avoid hijacking a conversation in progress with my own agenda, when the person speaking actually has more to say. 🙂

Am I understanding your words correctly? Do you mean what I think I heard?

Am I understanding your words correctly? Do you mean what I think I heard?

I’m definitely not saying that my words lack value, or that I don’t also want and need to be heard, just that it seems pretty reasonable that we all feel that way, and there does seem to be a woeful shortage of real listening going on… if no one is really listening, how will anyone at all feel truly heard, truly visible, or truly connected?

Will I find balance between listening, and questions?

Will I find balance between listening, and questions?

I have the evening to myself tonight, according to the calendar. No idea what I’ll do with it. Paint? Read? Play? Maybe take a few quiet moments and really listen to my own questions? Questions are powerful – and I value feeling heard.