Last weekend I attended a two-day class on developing listening skills. The sessions were insightful and intense. I learned so much about how to better engage with people, how to move toward a meaningful conversation, how to hear what someone is saying whether or not they are speaking, how to be fully present.
This session on listening falls in the broader context of training in Spiritual Direction. My impression, up until now, has been that a major component of spiritual direction is asking good questions. I still hold to that but I realized this weekend it’s a little more complex than that. There is more to balance and think through in formatting the questions. Even the motive to gain information and knowledge needs to be reexamined. What is the purpose for the information? Whose needs will be served in the gathering of the facts? I hadn’t really thought about that before.
A statement Dr. Esther Fangman, the instructor, made in regards to questions, especially intrigued me. She said, “Questions take control of the story.” Thinking on that some more, I’ve become very aware of the role ‘questions’ have played in my own life.
I think Third Culture Adults are typically exceptional question askers. We observe what’s going on around us. Curiosity forms quickly into enquiry. We ask questions. Crossing cultures is one of our fortes and some of that involves learning. To that end, we ask more questions. We’re good at interacting with all kinds of people from all ranks of life, in part, because of the questions we ask.
However, I’m not sure it’s always a positive quality. As I’ve reflected on it some more I have come to see how often I have used questions in the past to control the conversation. If I can quickly formulate a question I will get the other person talking. I can see now how that puts me in charge of the dialogue. If I rush into enquiry I can control for a while which direction the talk goes. This also serves to protect me from having to disclose too much about myself. Often, because my story is a little unusual, I dread having to explain it all. It’s too long and involved. It’s too risky. I’ve lived in places people have strong assumptions about. Giving them that information is also giving them the power to hurt me through their reaction, their expressions, and their commentary on those places. Furthermore the simple question, “Where are you from?” elicits all manner of insecurities and raises up deeper questions within me. Where is my home? Where am I comfortable? Am I ever at home anywhere? Will I forever feel like a foreigner wherever I go? Where is my place? It seems easier to quickly jump in with a question of my own in hopes that I can deflect some of the questions that might come my way.
Questions have also served to keep people at a distance. The questions outlined above are too painful. It’s too much work to explore the answers with everyone. I’ve discovered that questions help me avoid mutuality in some relationships. They have the added benefit of preserving the image and idea that I am a minister, reaching out to people, while they affirm the strange and silent belief that I resist others reaching out to me.
Questions and the answers give me a sense of control. Questions give me information and information, mysteriously, gives me a level of power. I know stuff now. I possess facts and data. And that elevates me. I’m no longer ‘in the dark’. I am an ‘insider’. Perhaps some of my TCK angst is silenced in those few moments. For a short time I feel like I belong. (Even as I write that out I realize how contorted and ridiculous that is).
This week we’ve had parent teacher conferences. Because it means an extended day for the teachers, the ‘Booster Club’ solicits donations and volunteers to serve the teachers an evening meal. Typically I’ve brought food but this year I thought I’d volunteer to help serve the meal. I’ve never done that before and early in the day I began to dread it. I felt anxious. I didn’t know how it would go. I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. It was the same old out of kilter uncertainty I’ve experienced every time I approach a new thing in a new culture.
I arrived a few minutes early and was so relieved to discover the lady in charge, Natalie, is someone I’ve met before. She casually told me what we were doing and where I might step in. She had a great sense of humour and soon we were exchanging comedic comebacks and sarcastic snippets. I felt myself begin to relax. Teachers filed in and out between conferences. We refilled chip bowls and veggie platters. We reloaded the coolers with pop.
During a lull in the evening, Natalie walked over to where I was. Seeing her come my way I instinctively began forming a question to ask her…but before I could she jumped in with one of her own. I felt myself tense up a tiny bit, realizing she had beat me to it. I was now at the mercy of the question. Part of me inside sighed. As her question hit the air, I was a little taken aback! It wasn’t the usual, “So where are you from?” but a much more insightful variation, “Of all the places you’ve lived—which one in your favourite?” What a great question! Before I knew it we were talking about Pakistan and India and Canada and the United States. I quickly threw together a verbal collage of some of my favourite cultural values in each of those places. Her question allowed me to briefly share my scattered heart. The lull was short lived. More teachers came in to get desserts and crackers and cheese and drinks.
I’m still questioning this whole issue of questioning but I’m convinced I need to change some things. I need to bravely face the risk. I need to trust that God, who knows the questions to all my answers and the answers to all my questions, faces the moment of questioning with me. Perhaps I can begin to resist the great pull to protect myself. My conversation with Natalie didn’t last long but as I reflected on it later, I realized the beauty of a good question. Her question asked me to be whole for just a little bit. Considering all the energy I’ve spent avoiding questions in the past, it struck me I’ve also robbed myself of the potential of the good questions. I’ve missed out, perhaps, on serendipitous small talk that’s big and significant. I’ve held people at bay but have, in so doing, deprived myself of potential connections and community.