Ask … Then Listen

When you ask someone a personal question, do you sit back and listen to their response without any interruptions? Or do you fill in the waiting period with more questions and other talking? Most of us would right away say that we are like the first type of person or at least we want to be. Oddly enough, most people are like the second and don’t realize it.

Recently we were doing an intensive workshop with a small group and they become very close to one another. One of the men in the group was asked a question by one of the women. The question held a deep emotional charge for this man. I watched as he took a deep breath and very slowly began to answer the question and then paused as he was collecting his thoughts. He clearly wasn’t finished. The woman asked another question, which she felt would help him. The man became silent and soon others were asking him more questions. Each person felt that the way they phrased the question would be able to help him.

I suggested that everyone just be quiet and let him take all the time he needed to answer the question. The room became totally silent for a period of several minutes. Gradually, the man began to speak again with many pauses. The longer he spoke without the interruption of more questions, the deeper he got until finally he clearly spoke his deepest truth about the question that was asked.

There are many people, usually men but also some women, who need a lot of time to answer a question, especially when feelings are involved. If they are pushed or interrupted they will just be quiet and not answer at all. The silence allows them to go to the bottom of their well and bring up a richness of truth.

I remember a time when our son came home from his first day of 6th grade. This was a big change for him because now he would have several different teachers rather than one and would be changing classrooms. I wanted to hear all about it. As soon as he walked in the door I sat him down to his favorite cookies, fresh out of the oven, and asked how his day went. As he sat there eating the cookies and thinking about the question, I asked him another question, “Did you like changing classes?” There was more silence and so I started asking more questions. “Did you like your English teacher? Is the new Spanish teacher nice? When does volleyball season start? Are you going on a class trip this year?” After each question was silence. Finally he got up and said, “Thanks so much for the cookies Mama. I think I’ll start on my homework; there are just too many questions for me.” I sat there for a while feeling disappointed. I had really wanted to hear about our son’s first day of 6th grade. Then I realized I had been the only one talking. Rather than asking a question and just listening to whatever came out of that, I filled in the time with question after question and probably tired him out with all the input.

The next time he came home from school, I asked one question and just sat there and listened. There was silence for awhile, and then gradually the answer started coming out and, the more I remained quiet, the more he talked.

As an experiment, try asking a question to someone you love. Sometimes it helps to get their attention first with something like, “Is this a good time to ask you something?” If their answer is yes, go ahead and ask your question. Then just sit back and listen, allowing the person to take all the time they need to answer. There might be a long silence or pauses, but rather than fill in the space with more questions and talking, just be quiet and listen. Even if you are uncomfortable with the silence, just be quiet and listen. If you are patient enough, your loved one will open up and speak and this will be a gift to both of you.

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