Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
February 2011 - Volume 11, No. 2
How to Ask Questions - Facing the Danger
When we are young, we ask questions - we’re naturally curious about things, we want to know more and more about the world we live in, to know about life. And for some this curiosity of inquiry remains a significant part of our adult life as well.
But two things can happen to dampen this inquiring spirit.
1) First, many frequently experience some variation of “shut up, kid!” Even the best of us can tire of our children’s persistent questioning. But the negative extreme carries the message, “who do you think you are anyway?” (i.e. you’re not good enough to be asking questions)”
2) The second ‘dampening’ is what I wish to discuss here. As we grow up, we begin to discover that asking questions risks getting answers we may not want, that cause us discomfort. In my couple counseling, where questions are encouraged, the first answer might well be “Are you sure you want to know?” The inquirer must decide if the risk is worth it. Frequently that second question leads to an important decision of the moment, the response to which is then a “yes, I do want to know.” Breakthroughs become possible.
Questions are by nature dangerous. They are meant to penetrate, to reveal, to break open - that’s their purpose. They may expose things we’d rather were left alone - ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ If someone says “I have a question for you,” well do a quick internal anxiety check to see if there’s any reason for going into ‘protection mode.’ Even if we come up ‘clean’ there’s still the possibility that we may be ‘in trouble.’ If we can stay in intellectual mode, it’s probably not personal and we’re generally safe. But if a partner or spouse says “There’s something I need to ask you about,” we know we’re in vulnerable territory.
When I’m dealing with a marital betrayal, I’ll frequently assign the “any question” process, where the betrayed has the freedom to ask any question, and the betrarer commits to answering fully. It can be excruciating, but it can also support the difficult work of healing trust. And that’s my purpose.
In a Courtroom, the process of questioning or interrogation serves the purpose of discerning the facts of the case, so that the Court can assign the appropriate judgment from within the pertinent body of law. And most “courtroom drama” reflects the struggle of that process.
Let’s consider the meaning and use of prayer. A primary form of prayer is intercession - where we pray to the Divine on behalf of someone else. In spiritual and even scientific circles, the results are significant. The meaning of “pray” is to entreat, to ask. We ask the Divine for something. Generally this isn’t a problem for us. A year ago we were praying for the people of Haiti - “help them”. We pray for the healing of a sick child, or for a wounded Arizona Congresswoman - “help her.” We petition the Divine to intervene in a way that has little to do with us, except that we “care.” We rarely pray a question that directly will influence our own lives, other than to relieve ourselves that in praying we’ve “done something.” (And there’s ample evidence that this works.) Prayer is easy when it doesn’t effect our own lives. And we generally like it that way. On Sunday mornings when we ‘pray for the world’ we ask God do do something, and that is a valid form of prayer. But how often do we offer ourselves seriously as the instruments of that work. Another common form of prayer is when we’re in trouble ourselves, or we’ve messed up and we pray for help. “God, please fix this, for me,” - and once in awhile adding, for ‘bargain’ purposes, “and I’ll do anything you ask” in response.
What would happen if there were a rule that the only prayers that can be addressed to the Divine are prayers that include a willingness to change our own lives for the sake of that for which we pray? That’s why I’m contending that asking questions is dangerous. I’ve noticed there are lots of resources (books, workshops, advice articles) available to teach us how to pray. But I haven’t noticed much emphasis on being ready to receive and live with a direct answer.
For someone engaged in psychotherapy, it’s the same. In one way or another in my work, I’ll ask a person to “go inside, and ask questions - then pay attention to the answers that emerge.” It’s as if to say, there will always be answers. And frequently the responses will direct each of us to make changes in our lives. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is so much easier (safer). But asking questions is never meant to be safe.
In my office, my asking questions can be very intrusive. But that’s part of the therapist-client agreement. It’s my work to do that well, and to guard the territory so it is safe to do this work. At one level that’s ‘confidentiality.’ I also know that the asking of intruding questions has a sacred quality, and I consider my office sacred ground for that purpose. The purpose can be stated in various ways, for personal growth, for healing of wounds or mental diseases, for greater maturity or wisdom, to enhance the ability to be in relationship, to have a better sense of one’s purpose in the world, in life. In each case it’s a creative process - and that’s why I consider it sacred work. It makes people, real people.
Personally, in social settings, I’m often reluctant to ask (social) questions. A close friend has chided me about this for years, and she’s right, it is a social flaw of mine. But I know in part, that my reluctance comes from the seriousness of asking questions in my work - and when I’m ‘not working’ I want to be not working.
Now let me take this one more step. Consider the great danger, the great power, the great challenge of asking questions. To ask a question necessitates being open to an answer. And the answer may well not be a simple affirmation that fits our current comfort. If you pray, pray only those prayers that are open to the Divine giving us an answer (and I’ve noticed that an answer often may come quickly).
A recent client took this seriously and over the period of months asked the important questions inside. From the results she carefully composed a gentle but firm letter to her husband saying “This is who I am. Please listen. We need to talk.”
All honest conversation, dialogue, debate, by their nature open us to change. Otherwise it’s only monologue, even when it’s two-way. Nothing happens; its’ safe.
Asking Questions is far more than just the curiosity of a young person about the world. Asking questions if far more than just a student’s intellectual inquiry. Asking questions is about opening ourselves to answers that can lead to a richer life. And sometimes in the process, they call us to make changes, changes that lead us (as some will say) to the life we were truly born to live, life lived to the fullest. Very dangerous stuff, to say the least!