Friday, September 7, 2012

The Questions We Need to Ask

We go along in our lives and sometimes happen upon a revelation that changes our perspective, our understanding--it might even radically alter the whole of our inner landscape. We find that the world as we know it is not, all previous appearances to the contrary, the world as it is.

It might be a spiritual awakening:

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,
 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.  And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. Acts 9:2-9
It might not be.

The revelation might be sparked by word from a friend, the observed action of a daughter, a principle you come to understand. A story, a poem, a painting. A piece of music. A car accident. It could be beautiful or ugly, subtle or dramatic, horrifying or not.

What matters is to be open to the possibility.

What seems dangerous is the tendency of the mind, once it's been made up, to harden into concrete. Even if the concrete is formed into beautiful statues, what good are they if nothing new can be created? Life is growth and change. There has to be the flexibility to allow for learning. To allow for admitting the possibility of having been wrong. To welcome new ideas or different perspectives, even if they prove one wrong.

We all know the danger of assumptions. And yet we cannot stop ourselves from not just assuming but acting on our assumptions. Constantly.

We assume that we know what someone is going to say and we stop listening. We assume that we know better and we stop listening. We assume that the person lacks credibility because of how he or she looks or speaks or because the person has this particular role and we believe that all people in that role are crazy or stupid or wrong, and we stop listening. That stopping is the concrete, and then communication is impossible. There may be concrete on both sides.

It's a worthwhile exercise to keep asking questions. So what if you think someone is ridiculous or crazy or stupid or mean or biased or overly critical? What would the cost be to step back, be willing to consider the other person's perspective or point of view, and ask three meaningful questions?

I see this sometimes in working with writers, that for a few, the pain of receiving editorial feedback is so great that they will do anything to avoid it. The most common strategies are to explain why they wrote as they did, even while the editor is telling the writer the problems in the writing, or, taking the opposite approach, to immediately agree with the editor, interrupting the editor and taking the floor instead. Both strategies are effective short-term solutions: the editor shuts up, and pain is avoided. They create a bigger problem, though, as how many editors are willing to continue working with writers who don't listen? 

A more effective strategy, one that would serve the writer professionally and personally, would be to say, "Can you tell me more about why you think that?" or to ask some other questions ("Are there other examples of that mistake in my work? Can you tell me how another writer might have handled that differently? Do you have suggestions for how I should address that problem? Is that a pattern you see or an isolated error?").

Everything is everything. These problems in communication--in connecting with other humans--aren't limited to the professional arena. When my daughters were in the 4th grade, I needed to talk with their principal about a problem I noticed at school. The moment I opened my mouth to speak, I saw a change in the principal's facial expression. Her eyes narrowed and her lips tightened into a fake smile (I was doing a lot of research on Paul Ekman's work on microexpressions at the time, and so was paying particular attention to facial expressions). As soon as the principal realized that I was going to tell her something she didn't want to hear, she stopped listening. Her response to me showed me that after registering that I was making what she perceived as a complaint, she hadn't heard anything I said.

I have so many examples in my life, examples in which I am pouring the concrete. None of us is immune.

The concrete may serve us if we are dependent on being right or on maintaining the existing state of affairs (however crumbling). Not so much if we want to make anything better. Certainly not so much if we want to develop common ground with other humans. Or even just with ourselves.

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