My friend had asked me to meet her for coffee because she was smack in the middle of unsettling change and feeling lost. She was seeking direction, feeling powerless, overwhelmed and discouraged by her circumstances. She began our conversation by explaining that over the last few months, every time something would happen, she would think, “I really need to talk to Julie.”
Why me? Not because I knew what she should do, because I most definitely did NOT know what she should do. I don’t have some freakish sixth sense and as much as I pray for discernment, I have very little confidence in my ability to interpret God’s perspective on things in my own life, much less in anyone else’s life.
I responded by telling her that my plan was to listen and ask a lot of questions. She said, “THAT’S why I want to talk to you. You always know just the right questions to ask!”
I’ll admit. I can ask me some questions. And I know that both my plethora of questions and I can get annoying, especially when the answers begin to chip away at mindsets and decisions that were previously firm. But if I ask a question and someone’s answer leads them to doubt or to consider possibilities they hadn’t before, I view that as a good thing. It’s never good decision-making to dismiss alternative points of view without consideration. That kind of tunnel vision leads us to believe we have the best idea ever, only to come face to face with roadblocks and monkey wrenches later. Or even worse, it leads us to believe we’ve come up with the only viable solution to a problem, when really, it’s just what we found at the end of the path of least resistance. If we never consider alternative scenarios, how do we know if we’ve even come close to the best case scenario? Unchallenged thought processes run the risk of leading to substandard ideas and a false sense of security and, sometimes the high and low extremes of a false sense of superiority or resigned hopelessness.
My friend’s comment got me thinking. What are the “right” questions? There are a couple of factors.
First, I ask the honest questions, no matter how “inappropriate” or politically incorrect. I don’t have a lot of patience for pretense (reason #1 and reason #2). Because of my desire to be used by God and my understanding that He equips me for service, I always pray for Him to lead me, to give me the right words to say and to tell me when to ask them and when to SHUT. UP. I pray with full confidence that God will give me the right words to say and since I have that confidence, keeping my mouth shut or skirting around a question that pops in my head feels like a lack of faith. And disobedience. If I ask God for help and He gives it and I chicken out by rejecting or ignoring His help, that’s disobedience.
What else makes for the “right questions?” It depends. And that’s key. It depends on what the other person says. If you ever give me the honor of an onion layer conversation, I’m going ask you questions and based on what I hear, I’m going to try to ask MORE questions that (hopefully) progressively peel back the layers that may be concealing or distorting the crux of the underlying issue. I pay attention to your stories, examples and explanations with the foundational possibility that they are all manifestations of something bigger and deeper. I’m not a-scared to ask the questions that might be embarrassing or make someone angry with me. (Well. Usually. Remember the disobedience thing.) I try to test assumptions (yours and mine), whether I see them as valid or not. I’m not unaccustomed to people getting exasperated with me. As a matter of fact, exasperation is a big clue that I may be on to something. If they didn’t care about a particular issue, they wouldn’t get upset about it. The goal is to find out if they care because they are unwaveringly passionate about something or frustrated because they see the erosion of the reasoning for their point of view? Either is a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned.
Rationalization is a huge obstacle in these conversations. I’m pretty good at it myself. Given enough time, the right books and at least 3 pages of Google search results, I can convince myself of just about anything. I can ignore the elephant in the room no matter how much he stinks. Statistically, I can not be alone in my expert and stealth rationalization skills. I’m thinking I have many, many partners in crime.
For the most part, I’ve found that deep down, people already know what they think and how they feel about their circumstances and choices. They just have trouble extracting it out of the subjective overwhelming chaos of their mind during the frantic pace of their days. We so rarely take the time to be still and think. And when we do, the sudden unaccustomed quiet is often barreled over by a deluge of overlapping thoughts all vying for top billing.
So when I’m blessed with an opportunity to engage in these deeper conversations with someone, I try not to start out by talking. There are already more than enough voices in their head already. I wait my turn, listen to the voices and, based on what I hear – sometimes spoken out loud, sometimes in between the lines – I ask questions.
Hopefully, the “right” questions.