Thursday, January 1, 2015
The Questionless Conversation
I would like to propose that the questionless conversation could be a liberating alternative to its mutually frustrating counterpart, which I affectionately call the interrogation. First of all, it is important to know the theology and heart behind the questionless conversation. If the foundation of it is well understood and put into practice then there will be much more freedom in your methodology as long as your heart is in the right place.
The basis of a good conversation is connection with the heart as opposed to a collection of information. If we think about the way that God draws us into relationship with Him, we realize that He does not demand much from us. Rather, He invites us into relationship with Him. He shows us His love through His Son and gives us the option to choose to respond with love or rejection. This is a risky approach, which is why I believe I tend to avoid it quite often in my relationship with others. It’s not fun being denied relationship when you extend an invitation. Yet, that’s exactly how God puts Himself out there. He has relinquished His total control of our response so that we can freely choose to connect with Him.
One reason I think specific questions are used in attempts to connect with people, is that the one asking the question has some control over what kind of response he or she gets. The questionless conversation relinquishes that control. Instead it seeks to express an interest in the other’s heart and allows them the freedom to respond at whatever level of depth they choose.
Imagine the person’s life is like a pantry with lots of shelves. On the top shelves they have small facts about themselves and their experiences. “I’ve been to France,” “I have three brothers,” and the like. As you go down to the middle shelves, you get the heavier items such as experiences themselves. This is where things begin to take the shape of stories. They might even have emotions attached to them and they could act as a window to the heart, but they are not the heart. Finally, at the bottom are the stories, the pains and the joys. These are the heavy items. When someone hands you one of these, it should always be treated as sacred, valuable, and private. Treating these with respect will affirm the person’s dignity and help you both connect with the heart God gave them.
If I were to barge into someone’s house and start asking for things from their pantry, what do you suppose they are likely to give me? As an intruder, I expect they would hand me the least valuable items, the facts. But what if I extended an invitation. Would you like to come over for a Barbeque? Bring something to share if you would like. Then, when they are free to share whatever they desire, one is far more apt to pick something from a lower shelf. Once they see how I treat that, they may bring something even more valuable the next time, or even invite me over. Then we have a true relationship beginning.
So how does this questionless conversation work practically? The first time I was asked to try this, I was frustrated because I didn’t have any other way of starting conversation. But I have since come up with a few alternatives that have more of a feel of an invitation than an interrogation. So here they are.
• The expression of interest: “I would love to hear about…”
This one is key; it’s the foundation of the others and makes people feel welcome to share freely. It can also be used to go deeper if you say something like “I would love to hear more about…”
• The invitation to depth: “Tell me more about…”
This one should be used cautiously with both tone and placement so that it’s not a demand. Use it to show that you heard what them and are interested.
• Curiosity: “I’m curious about…”
This shows that you have an interest in some aspect of the person’s life and invites them to share more without restrictions on what or how much they share.
• Wondering: “I wonder if _____ is connected with _______.”
This one is good for searching out connections between things without assuming that you know or have the answer. Invites the other to consider connections with you.
• Reframing: “It seems like you’re saying …”
This shows the person that you’ve been listening. It’s amazing how often this leads to deeper conversation simply because they know they are heard.
• Observation: “I noticed when you were talking, you said…” or, “I noticed you looked down when you started talking about…”
These ones can be particularly hard not to draw conclusions from. We may know or think we know what is happening, but it is still more inviting to allow them the option to explain from their perspective.
My hope is that you’ll take the challenge and try out this approach with some conversations with friends or strangers. When getting used to it, it can be fun to challenge yourself to see how long you can go in a conversation without asking a question. If you get stuck and can’t think of a non-question, don’t fret or freeze, just ask a question to keep things flowing and remember the principle of expressing an interest and inviting the other to share. As you have opportunity keep using the ideas above or improvise your own. See what works for you and enjoy. I trust it will give a new richness and life to your relationships.