Can I ask you a question?, re-visit

This post, written in February of this year and tweaked just a bit for you here, unpacks my journey from telling to asking –a practice which informs my most recent post, Of passing laws and changing behavior.

I have an adult student with some cognitive challenges who has been learning how to read for as long as I’ve known her; the process moves very slowly. Each word is a labor, and ‘Kelly’ is on her own time table. She will work hard for a few minutes and then take a break to sing or tell a “knock, knock” joke. When she wanders off topic, it can be challenging to recapture her attention, but I’ve found a pretty reliable way to re-engage her. I sit quietly with my hand raised, student style.

She soon sees my hand, points at me, and says, “Yes, Kristin?”

I say, “Can I ask you a question,” she says, “What’s your question,” and just like that we’re back in business.

My husband and I have been challenging each other to ask questions. We started this dialogue shortly after we admitted that we didn’t know all the answers.

My personal recovery started something like this: “Hi, my name is Kristin. I’m a know-it-all.”

My journey as a know-it-all started early. I was a straight A student in every class that I cared about, which was all of them with just a few exceptions:

US Government my senior year of high school because 1) it was right after lunch and I’d been up since 5:30am, and 2) our teacher, bless his heart, didn’t really sell his content in a way that sparked my interest;

Anthropology my freshman year of college because 1) a cute ROTC guy (in uniform!) sat on the other side of the auditorium, and 2) the instructor, bless her heart, stood at the podium in the front of the lecture hall droning on and on as she clicked through slide after slide;

Principles of Fitness in college because 1) I was anorexic, and on day one I was shown how to use calipers to measure my body fat, and 2) the instructor, a soon-to-retire coach, bless his heart, seemed less than thrilled to be stuck teaching a required course.

See a pattern? If I had a reason not to learn it and the instructor didn’t engage me, I had better things to do with my time and energy.

And besides, as I said, I’m a know-it-all. I’m basically right about everything — education, parenting, marriage, writing. Just ask me. And if you don’t ask me, don’t worry, I’ll let you know what I think anyway, either by telling you, by showing you, or by wearing an all-knowing expression on my face.

Yeah, my know-it-all attitude has never really fostered communication, let alone transformation. Unchallenged for much of my life, I forged onward, knowing what I knew and operating from that core until — whoops! — I realized that I didn’t actually know everything.

Over the past few years, my husband and I have been faced with very difficult questions, and we haven’t had all of the answers. To complicate matters, we keep finding ourselves in conversations with people we don’t agree with. In similar situations in the past, I would’ve used my position, power, or sheer force of will to press my opinions and beliefs onto others, using words or actions to convince them that I was right — about ministry, marriage, parenting, or politics. But guess what — force-feeding doesn’t convince people to eat what you are serving. People don’t actually like to be told what to think, feel, or believe. They like to be challenged to find their own answers and invited into conversations.

I know — it’s mind-blowing!

So, as a recovering know-it-all, I have, with my husband, been considering an alternate strategy — asking questions. What if, instead of telling everyone I know the best way to teach writing, I ask other teachers what strategies they have found to be effective? What if instead of pushing one particular type of school, I ask parents what factors guided their educational choices? What if instead of insisting that the best treatment for chronic illness is homeopathy, I ask a friend what she has found to be most useful in dealing with her illness?

Do you see what happens? Telling keeps people at a distance. Asking brings them into your space! Telling keeps me isolated. Asking gives me community! Telling sets my feet firmly in the ground. Asking creates space for me to move!

Now, I will admit, that this new stance — asking — feels more vulnerable than my previous one — telling. When you bring people into your space, they have much more opportunity to hurt you, but I’m learning that they also have much more opportunity to love you and to be loved by you. 

I will also admit that because the former way was so well practiced, it has been difficult to re-train the muscle memory. Our quest to transition away from telling started in the theoreticalWhat if we asked people questions rather than debating the correct answers? It then moved to the pedagogicalCertainly asking questions invites others to join in conversation. But it has taken us a while to move from the theoretical and pedagogical to the practical — actually asking questions.

Coincidentally — hah! — at the same time that we’ve been exploring questions as a means of making conversation and building community, a member of our small group community has, in every discussion we have had, started each thought with, “Could I ask you a question?” Evidently, as an organizational change agent, he has developed this practice as an effective tool to facilitate group engagement. He asks questions and then explores the answers.

We’ve had a role model right in front of our eyes!

So, we had the theoretical discussion. We determined an appropriate action. A model was provided, and then the occasion appeared — the moment in which we met a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living that produced personal transformation*.

It happened last weekend at a prayer conference we attended. One of the presenters, Chris Paalova, of All Nations Church in St. Louis, MO, spent his forty-five minutes asking us if we would be willing to change the way we pray from telling God what we want him to do to asking Him.

He built his case for this method by citing numerous passages where the big players of Scripture — David, Abraham, Paul, and even Jesus — prayed in questions — from David in the Psalms asking, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1) to Jesus on the cross asking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

And as he gave example after example it dawned on me that even with God, I have been a know-it-all. I don’t ask, “What are you showing me through this illness?” Rather, I say, “Lord, please reduce my pain.” Instead of asking, “Lord, will you please encourage my kids and show them who you are?” I say, “Lord, encourage my kids and provide for their needs.” Instead of asking, “Lord, what am I missing here?” I say, “Lord, lead me through this circumstance.” It’s subtle, but in my prayers, I am calling the shots. I am not being vulnerable with God. I am telling Him what I want when I could be asking Him what I need.

Like ‘Kelly’, I’ve been working on this lesson for as long as I can remember. I’ve been trying to learn that God is God and I am not. He is the only one who knows everything. My stint as a know-it-all was all smoke and mirrors. He knew that. And because He wants to engage me, to draw me closer to Him and be in relationship with me, He keeps varying his instructional methods.

So, at last, I’m sitting here raising my hand, and I can almost hear Him say, “Kristin, what’s your question?”

I think we’re back in business.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

*Kirkegaard, again.

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