The Gift of Good Questions

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 - 6:04 am

The Gift of Good Questions

When was the last time someone asked you an honest, open question — one that invited you to reflect more deeply on your own life, asked by a person who did not want to advise you or “fix” you but “hear you into speech,” deeper and deeper speech?

For most of us, that’s a rare experience.

In our culture, we tend to ask each other questions that are “fixes” or advice in disguise. “Have you thought about seeing a therapist?” is not an honest, open question!

But when we share a problem with someone who wants to listen and knows how to ask honest, open questions — such as, “Have you had a problem like this before? If so, what did you learn then that might help you now?” — something in us comes alive. Now we have a chance to learn from our own inner teacher, to tap into own inner wisdom.

That’s why I love Denise Levertov’s “A Gift.” It’s a poem that celebrates the power of good questions to evoke that which is deepest and truest in us. As Levertov says, “Yes, perhaps/this gift [of questions] is your answer.”

Try it today with someone you care for: a family member, a friend, a colleague, an elder. I’ve never known a person who did not feel honored by the fact that someone cares for them enough to ask a meaningful question — and then listen deeply and well to whatever they have to say.

A Gift
by Denise Levertov

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.