Several years ago I took part in a training on spiritual direction.
One of our assignments was to sit with two other people in our class and practice listening. One person was to talk about whatever she wanted to, and the job of the other two people was to listen.
We could not advise, quote Scripture, offer answers, or pray out loud. For a group of Christians, this was not an easy assignment.
Our only job was to listen, and our only words were to be questions with the sole purpose of learning something we didn’t know about this person and their experience. If the words we were about to say had a period at the end, we were not to say them.
We were only allowed to be curious.
We sat in our triad and someone else went first. As she spoke, I recognized within myself the desire to tell her things, to add my own perspective, to relate somehow with her experience by telling a story. But I followed the directions and asked questions instead.
It went on that way for about twenty minutes or so, and afterward I noticed I felt less pressure at the end of our conversation than I had at the beginning. I also noticed our storyteller looked relaxed and relieved.
Then it was my turn. I don’t remember exactly what I shared, but I do remember how I felt as they listened and started to ask questions about my experience, about the people in the story I was telling, about how I felt about it all.
The tears came unexpectedly and the feeling of relief and connection followed soon after.
Two things I remember after that experience.
First, I remember my two partners told me they felt like they hadn’t helped me at all.
Second, I felt like I had been heard in that conversation more than almost any conversation I had ever had.
Perhaps we’re all guilty of over-estimating our good advice and underestimating the value of connection.
People don’t need a fixer, they need a journeyer. I know this because it’s what I need, too.
I’m learning the power of simple, curious questions. You can learn a lot about a person that way. You can also learn a lot about yourself.
Last week, a friend asked me a question as I sat in her sunroom, staring over her shoulder at the small lake behind her house. I was there for some perspective, some encouragement, and to be reminded that I don’t have to control my life, nor can I.
“What is the next right thing?” she asked, not really expecting an answer. But it’s a question she offered for me to carry home, to ask myself when I feel my soul start to spin out of control.
The next right thing might be checking the mail.
The next right thing might be saying goodbye.
The next right thing might be making lunch, taking out the garbage, writing the check, feeding the dog, reading a chapter of that book.
The next right thing might be to take a nap.
Asking myself about the next right thing helps me to stay in this moment, helps me to be specific, helps me to get present to what is going on around me and within me without rushing too far into the future. Asking others curious questions honors their experience and lets them know they’re not alone.
It’s important to ask yourself some curious questions, too. So here we are in July, already halfway through 2015. Here are a few curious questions for your soul. Perhaps you’ll talk a little time to listen without an agenda:
- What is one thing bringing you joy today?
- What is a disappointment you are experiencing today?
- When you think about the past six months, when did your soul feel most awake?
- When did you experience a sorrow or regret?
- For what is your soul most longing?