After the birth of our daughter, Nikki, my wife I and experienced many different reactions to the fact that she had “special needs.” People often told us that they couldn’t deal with the challenges we faced which left us wondering what they would do instead. Others broke off contact with us because (as they later told us) they didn’t know what to say.
Because our energy was focused on trying to figure out how to best help Nikki, we rarely socialized. However, we did venture out to a family holiday party and I had a highly unique experience. My cousin gave me a hug and simply asked, “What has it been like for you to have a child with special needs?
What a terrific opportunity! Rather than having to figure out how to best respond to the condolences that we generally received, I was able to share the challenges we (and Nikki) faced and our fears that she would never be able to live independently. I felt free and expansive as I talked and left feeling much less isolated than when I arrived.
I have long wondered why it is so difficult for people to ask each other questions. Perhaps they are too intent on offering advice in their efforts to be helpful. They may also simply not have the patience to listen to others.
In any case, we give each other a wonderful gift when we ask them empowering questions that enable them to focus on what they really want to talk about and/or share deeper parts of themselves. Just the right question certainly makes us feel alive and happy that someone understands us well enough to know what we most want or need to talk about.
However, my experience is that people rarely ask each other questions that create opportunities for a deeper level of discourse. At worst, everyone competes to hold the floor or tries to persuade others that their perspective on the issues at hand is correct (which rarely happens).
I recently joined a men’s group and took the risk of talking about how my son has shut out the world and retreated into a deep depression due to the trauma he experienced before my wife and I adopted him. I was showered with advice about what I should do and stories about how the other men had dealt with their own challenges as parents.
Although my fellow group members were certainly trying to be helpful, their solutions were all things I have tried many times and their stories were not relevant to my situation. I took another risk and asked if someone could simply ask me a question. Everyone just stared at me as if I had suggested we all fly to the moon for late afternoon tea.
After a moments awkward silence, one guy finally asked, “like what?” I responded, “How about asking me what it’s like to be a chronic over-giver my entire life and not be able to help my son find a way out of his suffering?” He looked at me, pronounced definitively that I had an impossible situation and began to talk about himself. I consequently dropped out of this group and started my own group of men who are as interested in asking and being asked questions as I am.
I am fortunate that my long career as a therapist has provided me with countless opportunities to hone my ability to ask effective questions and love the look of appreciation in my client’s eyes when I hit the jackpot. My clients often note that no one has ever asked them such questions before and relish the opportunity to talk about important aspects of themselves or their lives in the presence of an avid listener.
In fact, one of my favorite questions to ask my clients is, “What are you afraid would happen if you let go of your unhappiness, stress, etc.?” This question helps them uncover and change their erroneous underlying beliefs such as their notion that they need their unhappiness to motivate them to make the changes they want in themselves or their lives.
There are many benefits to learning how to ask great questions. One is that others will be gravitate to you because you help them fulfill their need to be known and understood. In fact, I tell the students I teach Interpersonal Communication to at Temple University that the way to be the most popular person in any crowd is to simply ask others compelling questions.
Secondly, your worldview will be expanded as you learn about what is important to others, their life experiences and the challenges they face. Finally, the people you listen to will hopefully return the favor and provide you with the opportunity to talk about your own life. If they don’t, you may need to focus your social energies on others who are more reciprocal.
For those of you who struggle to find good questions to ask, here are some suggestions. Obviously, the questions you ask depend on your relationship with the person and the situation at hand. However, my favorites include:
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