“Real wisdom lies not in having all the answers, but in seeking to understand the questions.” Old Chinese proverb
My mother always used to tell me that I didn’t begin talking until late, but once I started I didn’t stop…because I had to make up for lost time.
Beside chattering constantly to my dolls, to my cat, and to anyone else who would listen, I’d make mom crazy with questions. She couldn’t put me off with a simple answer, either!
“Mommy, why is the sky blue?”
“It’s complicated, but it was made that way.”
“But how was it made blue?
“Because blue is the only color your eye can see in the sky.”
“But why can my eye only see the blue?” (I was very big on “but why?”)
Believe it or not even at a very tender age I wanted to be told about refraction, reflection, and the absorption of light. Unfortunately for my poor mom, once she realized this, she had a lot of explaining to do!
Eventually, Mom got me an encyclopedia. Of course, this led her to teach me how to distill what I really wanted to know down to a question, and finally, the best skill of all, she helped me pare my question into one word that I could look up. She taught me to search for the root of what I really wanted to know.
That need to probe, question, and find the answers, the real answers, has never left me. It occupied my childhood and teen years. I like to think it was motivated by a real desire to understand. (My husband would probably tell you that little has changed – the internet was made for me!)
As an adult, I turned my thirst for answers into trying to understand people, first as a teacher, then as a social worker, then therapist and director of the Family Services division for a large agency in Syracuse.
My clinical training taught me (surprise) it was not my job to provide answers to others. It was rather my responsibility to help those seeking answers to find their own.
So, while those coming for counseling (or social workers and interns for supervision), would start by asking, “What should I do?” My answer needed to be deeper questions: versions of “What do you think you should do?” They might push me…”You’re the expert. What would you do? You have the answer, don’t you?”(…sometimes this was said with attitude.) It was a signal to me of anger or desperation or fear, and the need to explore the origins of the issue more. That might start by naming the emotion I thought I saw: “You sound really angry(…or desperate…scared…or frustrated.)” And like lancing an infection, feeling could spew out and we could then move on to thinking about multiple possible solutions, exploring possibilities. It’s not that you can’t suggest some possibilities, among others, (Have you ever tried….) but it will work best if they select an answer from the list for themselves rather than taking THE answer from you.
NOTE: Based on comments I have revised this. Let me further clarify: This blog is not trying to teach you Therapy 101 and I am not suggesting blatant pat responses. Any formulaic question will not reflect interest or exploration (and may sound “shrinky” as well, bad shrinky.) Better would be some version of “Have you ever faced anything like this before?…What did you do that time?…Did anyone or anything help you then?…Can you tell me more about ____, I want to understand….” BUT for you friends out there trying to help but not be therapists, just ask what helps you understand…the questions merely need to be genuine. (Please understand; This post is only using my experience to explore the idea of questions versus answers. I really hoped readers might identify with my mom helping me explore my questions and helping me get to my answers, more than to me as a therapist.)
It is just like the iconic quote, you can give someone a fish or teach them how to fish, give them your wisdom or explore with them how they can be wise. When I learned to be a therapist I learned the art of asking questions until answers are “self-discovered” that really helps someone, like my mom helping me get down to the one word that represented what I wanted to know about.
Now, I am oversimplifying this. Doing this well is an art crafted with much practice. It requires curiosity, intuition, listening to what is said and hearing what is not said. It is not settling for the simple answer that lies on the surface, but the deeper answer that contains the real meaning. How well therapists learn to do this can change an ok (or even a bad but good-hearted) counselor into a gifted one. Probing with the right questions means the difference between effective counseling that empowers change and a quick fix that doesn’t last. So if your friend or family member needs that kind of depth, they may need a professional.
But in most situations, for all of us, it is tempting to say,”You should just do this…” Many answers seem so obvious. The reality is those are often the surface answers, which can be ok if it is only a surface question. Yet, while there are lots of yeses and noes in life, so many things are maybes.
And even then, as my mom would say, we really don’t “walk in other’s shoes,” and thus cannot live someone else’s life for them. First of all, that does not respect them or their values, their life experience, or desires. Second, it only works if there is nothing beneath the surface. In the long run, if there is, the simple surface answer may be wrong for them…or they may not be ready to go there or keep at it.
Sounds a little crazy though, doesn’t it, that the best answer to a question can be a question? Probably the biggest temptation for me to just come up with an answer is with my children and grandchildren. After all, I love them. I have learned a lot from life, and doing social work has exposed me to life problems well beyond one person’s typical experience. Also, in my work life, I was not only a therapist but a manager…as one president notoriously said, a decider. Many times quick analysis and a timely response is called for and appropriate.
So, I would be lying if I said I never give them advice, or that it never works. But at my best, I know the person who was really wise about this in my family was my mom. She really nourished my questions and in doing so helped me learn and grow. She gave guidance and resources more than easy answers…even though she had them. She was brilliant, a great manager. Yet instead, my mom helped me become me, and I am eternally grateful. If that is true, how can I not do the same for them?
So, now it’s time for me to fine tune my questions. What do you think about exploring questions instead of providing answers? Do you ever find yourselves caught up in questions that lead to other questions until you are off exploring in an entirely different direction? Do you like giving answers better…or asking questions? Last, but not least, am I alone in my craziness of questioning? Do I want to know that answer?
…well, I had to ask!