Sometimes answers just appear. They drop in our lap. A passing conversation, a magazine article, a novel, beholding nature, a confrontation with art, a scene in a popular film, a sermon – sometimes when we least expect it, we get an answer to a question we have never asked, as if the universe was playing a game of cosmic Jeopardy with us. We experience a brand new reality – an answer – and now, to claim the answer, we have to formulate the right question.
Life is like that. Sometimes.
But, more often do important answers shy from us. Like a coy lover in an emerging romance, answers await “the chase.” Answers hide behind a veil, waiting for us to make the first move. Answers want to be wooed. Courted. Invited. We coax important answers out of hiding by asking important questions.
A well-crafted question is a wonderful thing. Being in possession of a new, pregnant question is in some ways as much fun as finding the answers. Questions facilitate and nurture relationships. Better questions generate better answers, every time. Incisive questions set a table with more choices for creative, meaningful living.
A well-crafted question is also a potentially threatening thing, even sometimes dangerous. A great question makes it harder to nurse comfortably from the breast of ignorance and prejudice. A keen question makes difficult our ability to dodge the work of facing who we really are. The right question, asked at the right time in history, has the power to dismantle revered, time-honored institutions, ways of life and systems of thinking. Good questions are worth their weight in gold, yes; but, on the front end, they are unsettling as hell. Disquieting.
If someone wants to learn better “people skills” – on the job, in friendship, family, or romance – I would tell them to ask more questions. Better questions. Sincere inquiry is quite flattering to most people. It is an act of hospitality. A welcome. People like to talk about themselves.
Women in therapy often complain about men’s “communication skills.” From there follows the ready conclusion that men don’t know how to communicate. Men are Communication Doofwads. It’s not true. There are generally only two reasons men don’t communicate: 1) they don’t want to talk to you, and 2) you might not be asking the right question.
“Tell me about your day, dear,” she asks, only to get murmurs, grunts, shrugs, or even impatience and irritation. For many women, having a conversation with their man is like exhaustedly pumping the rusty, reluctant handle in a well house. So, here’s a secret about most men: Men love being asked direct questions. Conversely, men are often befuddled – and sometimes irritated – at the open-ended, narrative and process way many women navigate relationships. “Tell me about your day” is too open-ended. “How was your day” will often be heard and answered literally: “Fine.” So try this: “Do you respect your boss?” Or, “What’s the most personally satisfying part of your work?” Or, “Can we spend time together tonight?”
Guys will run at the mouth over questions like that.
Women, too, treasure inquiry, and perhaps their favorite is “remembered inquiry.” When a woman tells her man about some important event in her day, that man does well to remember that he was told, and then to initiate later an inquiry about the event: “How did your meeting go?” Watch her face when you ask that. It’s like handing her a bag of gold.
Some religious leaders once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus proceeded to tell the story of The Good Samaritan, capping the tale with “So I ask you, which of these was a neighbor to the man?” Wow. Jesus’ story doesn’t answer their question; rather, the story challenges their question, changes it from “Who is my neighbor” to “To whom are you a neighbor?” And just like that their universe was an expanded place.
Useful therapy is like that. Competent therapists ask questions, and in so doing help patients ask themselves new questions. It’s an art form. You can tell when you’ve done it right, because of the sudden silence, the slightly stunned expression on the patient’s face. The right question derails old ways of seeing self and the world. My favorite compliment from a patient is unintended, more an observation: “That’s a really good question.” My response is to say, “They pay me to ask them.”
If you want to change your life, then change your questions.
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. You can reach him at email@example.com.)