People often arrive in therapy looking for answers to life’s difficulties. This might seem like a reasonable proposition. However, it pre-supposes that there might be such a thing as a simple answer to any of the thorny challenges life presents, and, indeed, that the therapist is an “expert” on life, uniquely qualified in their provision. Solutions are at best only ever partial and must always remain subject to review. I believe that it is often more useful to attend to the nature and quality of our questions. A good question is generous and generative and often far more useful than a tidy answer, alluring as the latter might seem.
The Art of Listening
Remaining curious and open to the humanity of another which lies behind their words is an art to be cultivated through listening. Learning to listen is more than simply being quiet while another person speaks, waiting your turn to say your piece. Listening at its best is a willingness to be vulnerable, to be open to surprise, to relinquish assumption and to enter the realm of ambiguity.
Arguments so often have a quality of familiarity about them, in civic as well as personal life. Culturally, as is so prevalent in current political discourse, conversations polarise around notions of right and wrong and winning and losing. When we enter debate from the perspective of competing certainties, I believe that the conversations it is possible to have become immediately impoverished.
We may experience this dynamic of polarity most often in our intimate relationships. The pressures of work, of raising children, and of paying the bills, among other issues, often render us less than perfectly attentive versions of ourselves. The quality of our conversations with our loved ones often deteriorates under such duress. Managing and prioritising (triage style) the demands of modern life may leave intimate connection forced to the bottom of the pile. When we find ourselves enraged about whose turn it is to do the washing up or encounter one of the myriad incendiary touch points that can inflame separated parents, we know that we are between a rock and a hard place. We are (in part) caught in an inevitable existential bind, tethered between freedom and responsibility, yours and mine. We must find ways to catch ourselves and the conversation before it degrades into one of accusation and blame. If that happens, everyone is at once diminished and relegated to positions of victim-hood.
Opinion Versus Experience
While we may disagree with the opinion of another, we cannot disagree with their experience. When we get closer to understanding the experience of another, we enter a more relational dynamic. In this dynamic, we can be more open to complexity and more tolerant of difference. The quality of our listening changes. We become more generous, less defended and ultimately more compassionate.
Difference of opinion is something to celebrate and defend. After all, it is an expression of our human rights of free will and free speech. When we shut down, deny or disqualify the opinions of others, we enter dangerous totalitarian territory.
Back at the Kitchen Sink
When we find ourselves (as we all do) entrenched in our competing stories of reality, played out amid a greasy cast of pots and pans, perhaps this is a moment for a different kind of question. “What else might be going on for me/you right now?” “What am I /you not expressing/ hearing?” “What is the story we tell and believe about ourselves/ each other in this moment?” Generative questions are more likely to evoke answers in their image and serve to demonstrate our interest, curiosity and respect for each other.