Saturday, December 19, 2009

2 radical questions

Following up on my last post... two of the most radical questions that one can ask another person are:

How are you? (pause)
What do you think? (pause)

When I say, "how are you?" I don't mean the casual NY, "howyadoin'?" Nor do I mean the casual Californian, "Hey, how's is going!?" Those are both rhetorical questions that are not soliciting answers.

The radical act in conversation is to ask "How are you?" and really mean it -- closing one's lips after the question, sitting in silence listening for the reply, signaling clearly that the other person can fill that space however they want. It takes some getting used to. At first, people will brush it off with, 'fine, fine,' and try to move on. But if you persist, "no really, how are you?" radically transformative things can happen.

"What do you think? (pause)" is similar. It acknowledges the other person's agency and subjectivity in the world. It instantly confirms that there are an infinite number of ways of seeing things. It begins a conversation of two people coming to understand each other's worldviews. Some people, particularly poor people or people in oppressive situations can sometime go their entire lifetimes without ever being asked, "What do you think?" Asking, "What do you think?" and pausing for as long as it takes for the other person to realize that the floor really is theirs to do with as they please, is a radical and transforming act.

I traveled in Central America during college on a trip led by a couple of sociology professors. "How are you? (pause)" and "What do you think? (pause)" were two of the tools they relied on in their research and in their teaching. At first I was disappointed that these two professors did not already have all the answers. But as I watched students and indigenous people bloom and come alive when asked these two questions (always with the complete pause at the end) I came to see what a radical act it was. I started using it everywhere -- with taxi cab drivers, hotel housekeepers, host mothers, children, and soldiers. And the world opened in ways I've never experienced before. The crazy thing is, there is always an answer after the question that is more remarkable than anything we could ever guess.

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