Can I Ask You a Personal Question?

I love probing questions!

Both offering them and receiving them.

I recently travelled overseas with a friend who commented on how much I questioned the people we met along the way. He was actually offended by it. They weren’t particularly personal questions but he felt it was intrusive. But actually I find that people generally love it and are eager to answer. After all, for most of us, the one thing we love to talk about the most tends to be ourselves! And how else do you discover all the juice inside people if not by clearly expressing interest via questions?

I don’t have the type of personality that readily volunteers a lot without invitation. I generally want to feel that someone is truly interested and has the time to listen before I share. Questions demonstrate that interest. The more personal the better.

Being questioned can support two really valuable functions. Firstly, this expression of interest usually makes us feel cared about – important, valuable and seen. Secondly, it can offer great assistance in gaining clarity. The right question can open us up to aspects of ourselves that we mightn’t have realised before.  It assists us to reveal ourselves more deeply to the person who’s inquired, but often more importantly than that, it assists us in knowing ourselves better as a result. That’s why so many people value their therapists of course. Other people have a more objective vantage point which brings us to consider lines of inquiry that might otherwise elude us.

Years ago I used to see a wonderful homeopath. He was the most masterful questioner I’ve encountered. He was equally good at crafting the right questions as he was at then allowing spacious silence for the answers to be discovered. Often times I didn’t actually need the homeopathic typically prescribed at the end of each consultation because I’d been so deeply rearranged by the perfection of his questions and the new realisations I’d arrived at.

It’s really quite rare to encounter people who allow us all the space we need to unfold ourselves fully. Questions and silence can be a very precious catalyst. It’s an invitation to be witnessed in our emergence and it simultaneously draws out precious intimacy.

It turned out that my travelling companion was uncomfortable with my questioning routine because it unconsciously took him back to disturbing experiences of his childhood. His mother had used questions in a way that disempowered him. Like many mothers, she was somewhat overbearing in her assistance and protection of him as a boy. She interrupted his natural curiosity of discovering how things worked for himself by giving him directions for doing things better and questioning him in a way that made him feel wrong.

And so now he finds it difficult to discern the differences between questions that come with a tone of inquiry and support versus questions that seek to control or criticise. They all feel like intrusion to him. And as a result, he very rarely deepens the conversations he initiates by asking meaningful questions of others. The relationship between he and I tends to remain quite superficial. He has no idea of the beauty he could access in people if only he were to ask some personal questions and then allow them the space to answer thoroughly. And he’s yet to relax into feeling the generosity extended to him when others inquire of his deeper experience.

Australians have a terrible habit of greeting each other with “How are you?”, and not meaning it at all. Well not being interested in the answer anyway. The question is delivered in exactly the same way as we say “hello” or “good morning”. People have no expectation that we should actually answer with a considered response about how we really are. It’s a national habit that’s disingenuous.

Very often people need some coaxing to reveal themselves. It’s not commonplace to be drawn out by great attentiveness in many of our interactions these days. People might need some time to properly register the genuine quality of our interest. They might answer a personal question with a superficial answer. It may well be worth repeating the question with encouragement and reassurance that you’re genuinely interested in what they think and feel.

It’s amazing what we can share when we feel that people really care. Even with people we don’t know well at all. Social interactions are infinitely more rewarding when we’re willing to sidestep the small talk and delve into more personal inquiry. That’s how true connections get forged – in the sharing of our deeper personal feelings and experiences.

Occasionally some people will retreat from a personal question but in the most part, people are so willing to engage. We’ve just been trained to be so cautious about entering into relationships slowly and keeping parts of ourselves hidden from view. It’s so liberating to talk freely about important things; like what we love and fear, the passions that stir our spirit, emotional challenges, our feelings about sex and money and God and dying, for example. These are the personal things that make life worth living.

We shouldn’t fear or delay opening up to share them with each other.

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