The transition from closed to open ended questions
What was the first question you remember asking? I wonder that as I observe young children, whose unobstructed questions stream out like water. As you attend school, you learn to confine your questions to Q-A time. Somewhere along the way you realize that questions either have a strong sense of place in your life or they’re more like the ‘what’s for dinner?’ variety.
For years, questions dominated my life. Whether I was on a breaking story or in the studio, it was my job to relate whatever was happening by asking questions of witnesses or experts who would enlighten and inform me and the audience. In most instances I had an agenda, to better understand the situation or uncover something hidden. Inquiry was part of this process, but it was more important to get a specific answer. While I didn’t revel in closed-ended questions, if it got me the answer I was looking for, that was fine. I was a questioning machine.
Two experiences challenged my questioning style.
The first event took place when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. To better understand how to care for him I took a “Savvy Caregivers” class. On day one, JJ, our very enthusiastic instructor, was clear.
“Stop asking your lovey (her wonderful word for our loved one with Alzheimer’s) questions. It confuses them.”
“Place a glass of water in front of him. If he wants something else, he’ll tell you. By asking him to choose between water and something else, he might get confused. And that’s where agitation can set in.”
Eventually I came on board and communicated the ‘no questions’ mantra to everyone in my dad’s presence. Through the years of his decline, he was rarely frustrated.
The second event was the day I asked one of my adult sons about an event that had transpired the night before.
“Mom, you already know what happened.”
“Yes, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
“It was fine,” was his response.
I was informed, respectfully, that my question about something I already knew the answer to was not an inquiry into how my son was doing. Instead it came across as an interrogation of something that needed no more revelation.
So I began a review of my questioning style. And what I discovered was fascinating and daunting. I did start many of my questions in an accusatory manner, “did you? are you? do you really? is that? why?”
As you might expect, the response to these closed-ended questions was almost always defensive.
A new approach.
Ironically I’ve transitioned into another profession that is steeped in asking powerful questions: life coaching. In every hour of my International Coaching Federation training, the types of questions I’ve been encouraged to ask have transformed how I see myself and the people around me.
I thought back to a few of the questions and statements I’d uttered in the past year when challenged to consider how I pose questions and make statements.
Why did you buy that piece of junk?
Don’t you care about how we feel?
Is that what you’re wearing to dinner?
What were you thinking?
How is your car running?
We’ll miss you, have a great time.
Where is that blue shirt you got last week?
How did you arrive at your decision?
You can feel the tone in each of the original questions just by reading them out loud. They have a squirm factor. The reframed questions don’t judge. They’re real, inquiring questions. And if one was posed to me, I would have no reason to be defensive.
How do you stop using the original questions? By replacing them with the style of the new questions which begin with ‘how? what? where?’ Over and over again. I’m reminded of the words of a friend who pushes me to be a stronger cyclist by telling me it’s all about ‘time in the saddle.’
Every time I use this newfound approach, removing the negative tone, I find that I think differently of the person. It also seems to alter the reception of that question by the receiver, because there is no blame or accusation.
I write sticky notes with the words, ‘how? what? and where?’ and post them on my computer. Every time I’m tempted to launch into, ‘why did you…?’ I pause and attempt to use, ‘what are you learning…? It turns out my brain is creating new neural pathways with these reframed questions. If I must pause and count a few beats — waiting for this language to take hold — so be it.
This isn’t a new idea. For the past several decades Positive Psychology, Appreciative Inquiry, Emotional Intelligence, and a host of other modalities have been inspiring us to look for the best or the best outcome in a person or an organization. They’re based on the premise that, “Human systems grow in the direction of their deepest and most frequent inquiries.” When we begin by reframing something as simple as a question, the result can be dramatically different.
So the next time you’re ready to blurt out, “Why did you dye your hair pink?” I encourage you to pause, breathe and consider a reframe. “What shade of pink are you using?”
What have you got to lose?
No One likes to suffer; in fact we have a natural instinct within us to avoid pain – at all cost. We run from it, hide from it, ignore it, drown it out and find any distraction that will numb suffering when it comes knocking.
Suffering arrives as illness – rejection – loss – disappointment – loneliness – death – grief. It can feel like an ache that will never end. It can feel all consuming.
We live in a time where we have the ability to minimize suffering with health care, medications and “How to, Advice.” The ability to lessen pain is a gift but it can also lead to a belief that we shouldn’t have to suffer. If there’s something to numb agony then why in the world would we not grab it?
I would agree that extreme suffering can be detrimental to life; causing exhaustion or an inability to function day to day. Alleviating pain for these reasons is compassionate, but to overlook the opportunity to understand suffering can rob us of finding the treasure hidden deep within.
You may have heard the advice, “Embrace your suffering.” That’s counter intuitive but true. What does embrace your suffering even mean? It starts with taking a deep breath and turning towards pain instead of away from it. In so doing we choose to look at it, to take it in and to spend time reflecting on it’s the impact; then asking these questions of ourselves: “What am I feeling? Where is my suffering taking me? What is my suffering teaching me?”
By embracing my hurt I have taken the first step in peeling back the layers. What unfolds is a deeper understanding of me – seeing goodness in the midst of my pain – finding strength I did not know I held – courage – and a deepening compassion for others.
There are many gems to be found in difficult circumstances that we would much rather see bypass us; but to have missed the growth and capacity for emotional development – spiritual awareness and soul expansion – would be a missed opportunity . . . a tragedy.
Heal . . . be well . . . grow and know that suffering may not be permanent but the treasures buried within your suffering are.
What the unexpected loss of a weeping cherry tree teaches me
Two years ago, we planted a stunning Snow Fountain weeping cherry tree in our front yard. Its branches were espaliered on an umbrella-type trellis, adding a very dramatic presentation to a garden with a life of its own. The tree made it through a very cold winter in 2017 and last spring, the blossoms were extraordinary.
As we began work in the garden in April, I noticed the buds that formed on the branches over the winter weren’t flowering. I sent images to the nursery where we bought the tree and was told not to worry and to wait until everything around us turns green. As I waited for the green leaves I went online. Weeping cherry trees are grafts of two, sometimes three, trees to create those gorgeous, flowering branches. I found the graft around the neck of the tree, under a cluster of branches.
Everything greened up around the neighborhood this weekend, so my husband and I headed out with clippers to check the branches. To my horror every single branch above the graft was dead.
Every. Single. Branch.
I was shaken. After cutting away the dead limbs, my husband sawed off the portion above the graft and we wrapped it in a blanket and drove it to the nursery, hoping for an emergency miracle. The news wasn’t good. We were told our weeping cherry, which we now call ‘SF,’ is not coming back in this state. Unless we attempt to graft it ourselves, the tree stump is all that’s left. I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach.
Finding it hard to identify why I felt so miserable, I recalled a phrase from Franciscan priest and author, Richard Rohr,
“How you love one thing is how you love everything.”
I never thought of the digging and weeding and dead-heading and watering as acts of love toward these living elements that surround us. Yet I follow a rhythm with bulbs and perennials and flowering trees. When I plant bulbs in the autumn I envision them resting and growing underground for months in the bitter cold, until they peek through the snow-covered ground to show themselves in full splendor. I, too, use the winter months to store up strength and develop new thoughts and ideas, and in spring I find I’m ready to present myself to the world with a fresh outlook.
When I put seedlings in the raised beds that become our tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, peppers, kale, and herbs after Mother’s Day, they are planted in soil that we have carefully cultivated for the best growth. Should an unexpected hail storm pass through, we have barriers and cloth to protect the tender chutes. As a result of these efforts, a myriad of vegetables and fruits fortify us throughout the summer and fall.
You can find numerous studies/articles on how gardening:
- relieves stress
- rests your mind
- improves your mood
- provides more vitality
- impacts depression
- staves off cognitive decline.
Even without a garden, you can immerse yourself in a natural environment by walking through a park or botanic garden, driving to the mountains, hiking or sitting by a stream.
If you’re not able to get out at the moment, bring that life indoors. In my office I’m surrounded by orchids and bromeliads, a peace plant and succulents. The air quality in this room is fairly astonishing. You know how I keep them alive? I water them. Period.
As I peer out the window and see the place where ‘SF’ once stood, my connection to all the surviving plants emerging from a long, cold, winter seems stronger than ever. Even though I don’t admit that I talk to our greenery, there is a sweet communion here.
We did move ‘SF’ – now a 6-foot tree stump – to the backyard, where we will attempt to graft it with new life.
Or maybe it will show us how it will thrive in a most unusual way.
And for the record, we replaced ‘SF’ with a Summer Storm tree lilac. The nursery landscaper assured me it will live through anything.
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