There’s a magic word that creates trust like nothing else I know. It helps people to get to the heart of the matter, and brings them clarity as they empty their cups, and find a pearl of truth at the bottom. What’s the magic word. Yes, it’s “What?”. The best “what questions” can lead to awesome insights and revelations.
So rather than automatically flipping off a piece of advice such as “Just have faith”, when someone shares their vulnerability, ask a cup-emptying question instead. This is part of the Virtues Project strategy called Spiritual Companioning. I have never found it to fail in illuminating someone’s path or at least giving them a glimmer of light to understand their own situation.
Companioning the dying at Hospice as the spiritual care coordinator, I learned the power of open-ended questions such as “What’s this like for you?” or, “What’s happening with you today?” People gave astonishingly honest answers.
One man, considered to be in dementia, and known for angry outbursts replied, “This place is a bloody prison!” I asked, “How is it like prison?” (“How” often follows “what”). This facility was a beautiful, comforting environment with homemade quilts on the beds, soft colors, and even a garden in which patients could sit in the sun. But this man felt deprived of having a drink or a smoke - his two remaining pleasures. I arranged for him to receive some alcohol, leaving a note in his chart that “hospice is for palliative care, not a drying-out facility!”
One of the nurses laughed and said, “What are you - the spirits care coordinator?”
When I returned with a smoke, he asked, “Are you an angel?” Listening to his feelings of imprisonment without judging him, although I neither drink nor smoke, allowed me to do what I could for him. He was a model patient until his death a few weeks later.
If someone is unhappy, ask “What’s the hardest part of this?” Most of us are afraid that will make things worse, and instead reassure or cheer someone up, but it actually gives people relief to share their pain. Even in business, companioning is key to good salesmanship. I learned that “unless you’re listening twice as much as you’re talking, you won’t make the sale.”
I once flew to Washington DC to make a presentation of an artificial intelligence program called Paradigm to a large government department. The director attended with about 20 staff. After a few minutes, he growled, “This is ridiculous!” and stormed out.
The staff were very apologetic as I put away my Power Point presentation. A few minutes later, I was alone, packing up, and he returned. “Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to be hard on you.”
“What bothered you most about the presentation?” I asked.
He looked surprised. “If I can’t step on it, hit it or make love to it, it isn’t real.”
Impressed by my questions he finally said, “Tell you what. I’ll fly to Canada with my best computer expert and we’ll talk further. I’d like to meet your husband, who created the darn thing.” This man not only bought the program, he became a lifelong friend of ours.
Companioning is more active than mere silence, although silent listening is important. It’s being deeply present and engaged, whether silent or through questions. I call it, “Sacred curiosity”. Scriptures of all faiths support this.
“He who is wise listens,” (Proverbs 12:15) “My dear brothers and sisters. Take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19) “May you always listen, always hear, always speak with the power of the spirit.” Abdu’l-Baha (Baha’i Faith) “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.” Douglas V Steere (Quaker yheologian)
Next time you get a chance, remember the magic word, “What?”