Working as a psychiatrist in effect means that I get paid to ask questions, listen carefully and decide a course of action.  I have the privilege of asking some incredibly personal questions to a huge variety of people. What I find fascinating is that you never quite know where your questions will take you.

listening-photoThe questions we ask ourselves and others can go in two possible directions. They can drag us down or they can have the potential to be powerful and even life-changing.

The right question can open doors to previously unexplored places. It can open up amazing opportunities and possibilities. Alternatively the wrong question can close doors and cause walls and barriers to come up – maybe never to be opened.

Finding and asking the right question in the right way and right time is an art and a skill that can take a life time to master. And as people are so varied and complex it can lead to countless avenues and openings.

At any point in the day, as life happens and things go our way or don’t go as we plan or hope for, we find ourselves with a whole range of thoughts, feelings and emotions. At every point we find ourselves at a crossroads. Either we can choose to learn from what has happened or we can react and judge from what has happened.

The judger questions are along the lines of:

– what’s wrong?
– whose fault is it?
– what is wrong with me?
– how can I prove that I am right?
– how will this be a problem?
– why is that person so stupid and frustrating?
– how can I be in control?
– why should I even bother?

Sadly in depression or a negative frame of mind, or even in the natural course of the day it is very easy for these questions to dominate.

But I also have the choice in any situation or circumstance to adopt a learner mindset.
Learner questions are along the lines of:
– what is working?
– what am I responsible for?
– what do I want?
– what can I learn?
– what are the facts? What is helpful about this?
– what is the other person thinking, feeling and wanting?
– what is the big picture?
– what is possible?

Everyone of us asks both types of questions and we have the power to choose which ones we ask in any given moment.
I need to remind myself that with the judger mindset the future can only be a recycled version of the past. It shuts down the potential of what is possible. The truth is that we are all recovering judgers. I can learn to accept the judger within me and practice being a learner moment by moment.

Let me illustrate this with some examples of conversations from my own life. (For an example from the world of psychiatry see here).

1. He was an erratic attender of the church we as a family were a part of. At times he showed a real desire and earnestness to follow God and other times he appeared disinterested and even hostile.
One particular day he was angry and argumentative, saying “All science disproves God. How can you believe such myths and nonsense?” I was surprised and taken aback by his harshness. I felt tempted to go into a judgemental mode with him. But then I was struck by how this seemed so much out of character from our previous conversations. I felt I had enough of a relationship with him to challenge him as to what had changed and why was he being so hostile. So I simply asked him why was he being so difficult with me? The honesty of his response literally took my breath away. He told me how he had been immersing himself in pornography, which he knew he should not be doing. However, he was not prepared to stop and knew that if he took further interest in spiritual matters then he would have to stop doing something he knew in his heart of hearts was wrong!

2. I was walking along the high street when I was stopped by a Muslim man with a video camera in his hand. He told me he was interviewing members of the public about their perception of Islam.
He was keen to tell me that I should not believe what I hear and see in the media about the portrayal of Islam. He told me that Islam is a peace-loving and tolerant religion. We discussed whether Islam was compatible with democracy. He was also keen to tell me how I could not trust the Bible as it was full of inaccuracies and errors. He showed me a book which claims to cite lots of inaccuracies in the Bible. It was at this point I discussed with him the issue of religious conversion. I gave him a hypothetical scenario whereby I chose to to convert to Islam, but then decided at a later date to leave Islam. I asked him what would be the consequences for me. Without a moment’s hesitation he told me, “You would be killed!”
The purpose of this post is not to explore the Muslim faith, but to show the consequences of asking the right question. Asking the right question in this context revealed to me where the person I was talking to was really at.

Do you have any examples of how asking the right question has helped you personally or been beneficial in your own life?