Thursday, May 6, 2010

Tough Questions

I'm always amazed at the variability in the willingness and apparent capacity of people to answer questions. Ask the same question of ten people and you'll get everything from energetic, enthusiastic dissertations, to series of answers to anything but the question asked, to arguments as to why one should never ask such a question, to variations of the deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon. And that might be to a question such as, "So, what do you really want in life?"

Who's Your Favorite?
Sometimes, how people respond to questions tells us much more about them than the what of their answers. For example, one of my favorite questions to ask parents is, "Who's your favorite child?"

Without a thought, most parents answer with the patented, "I love all my children equally. I could never pick one over the other(s)."

Some answer with the, "What kind of question is that! How could you ask such a question!"

In the case of the latter, I always treat the parent's response as not being rhetorical. In the case of the former, I often continue with, "But if you had to pick, who would it be?"

Silence... or I don't know... or I just couldn't.

I'll suggest that the answer is not going to appear on any permanent record, that as soon as they answer, they can change their minds. I'll offer that the answer itself is transient, depending on the day, recent experiences, how they're feeling, and so on.

At this point, some intrepid parents will lean over and whisper, almost conspiratorially, "Well, if I had to pick, and I might change this, and I must insist that I love all my children very much, but, if I absolutely had to make a choice, it would be..."

For many parents, having said their answer aloud (or at least almost aloud) and not having been struck down by lightning is a freeing experience. Their shoulders relax, their breathing slows or begins, they seem to feel better. Others retreat immediately, retracting their answers before they've echoed off the far wall of the room.

When parents answer, I'll ask why they chose whom they chose. For parents who seem stuck, I'll often step back asking what they like most about each of their children, and then what they like least about each of their children.

Invariably (after five minutes, after thirty minutes, after an hour), parents come to the realization that, although they love all their children, they definitely have biases in regard to how they experience, respond to, anticipate and treat each of them.

No matter what we say, at any point in time, we have a favorite.

What Would You Keep?
As Iris and I were driving to New Jersey on Monday, I asked her, "If the house were burning down and you could run in to save just one possession, what would it be?"

She matter-of-factly responded, "You."

I smiled, thanked her, and continued, "OK, what possession other than me?"

Without hesitation, she said, "Your piano."

I thanked her again and asked her why. She told me that she didn't really have any things that she cared that much about. (To be sure, when Iris moved here from the Netherlands, she showed up with nothing more than a single suitcase full of cloths and a couple of pictures.) The only two things that she would consider saving were my piano and my saxophone.

We talked about what made each of these special; it came down to how personal they were.

My piano is a Steinway grand that was built in 1882. It was my mom's piano. I grew up spending hours sitting beside her on the bench as she accompanied me while I played my saxophone. The piano was always the center of activity for gatherings of family and friends; we would all gather round it and play or sing.

My saxophone is a 1971 Selmer Mark VI. It's been with me since I was fourteen. My sax teacher was a man named Hobart Grimes. He was a dead ringer for Rex Harrison and indeed, much of his teaching method resembled that of Professor Henry Higgins. Every month Mr. Grimes would drive from Chicago to the Selmer factory in Elkhart, Indiana where he would play saxophones that had just come off the assembly line as part of their quality control process.

Saxophones, even the same make and model, vary significantly. They have personalities. When my folks decided to surprise me with a real Saxophone, they asked Mr. Grimes to help. He began looking for the best among those he tested when in Elkhart and one day settled on the one that would become mine. Over the years, you adjust to your sax and it adjusts to you.

I had to agree with her. I would have picked one or the other, though I would have reversed the order going with my sax first.

OK, for Iris at least, that wasn't a really tough question. We had a really great discussion. Iris' answer told me so much about her, what she cares about, and her love for me. I think the question is a keeper, so to speak.

So, forgetting for a moment about living, breathing entities, were there a fire, what possession would you save?

What Questions?
There are so many questions that cut quickly to what we believe at our cores.

Have you ever asked a couple, "If you could do it all over again, would you have chosen each other?" or "Have there been times when you thought, 'this was a mistake!'?"

Have you ever asked an employee sitting in a meeting with his boss, "What would you change about your boss and her management style?"

Have you ever asked a friend upon first meeting another friend, "So, what do you make of so-and-so here? What's his story?"

Have you ever asked anyone, "If you could have one do-over, what would it be?"

I'm always amazed at how readily and quickly some people answer "tough" questions and how reticent others are to answer "easy" questions, not to mention the antics that people will pull to avoid actually answering or to appear to have answered. Even non-answers tell us so much about one another.

Are You Inquisitive?
People have also sorts of reasons for holding back, for not answering questions. They may fear getting the answer wrong; they may be concerned about how others will feel when they actually say what they feel or think; they may suspect a hidden agenda; they may not want to know the answers themselves (or the implications thereof).

Oftentimes people will accuse me of asking questions, but never answering any. At those times I'll usually point out that no one had actually asked me a question, or that, they'd not waited for an answer.

Sometimes people assume I have some agenda other than hearing what they have to say. Over time, people tend to see that this isn't the case, but it can take a long time.

I love questions (to ask them and to receive them). I love provocative questions that make me think. I'm amazed that so few of us seem to ask questions, or that we don't ask questions beyond "how's it going?"

Do you ask people questions? What kinds of questions do you ask? Do you ask "hard" questions? If not, why not? Are there people in your life whom you find to be uninteresting or shallow? Have you asked them any "interesting" or "deep" questions? What would change if you did?

Wishing you a inspiring, inquisitive Thursday!


  1. Hi my sweet husband... Reading your post this morning I have to smile while thinking back at our car conversation. We had a good time!

    Couple of thoughts about tis article: 1. attachment to things. I don't really attach to things, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate them. For example I LOVE my computer and I LOVE my jembe (and stand). But in the end, if I would loose them, that would be OK. I believe that over time these things do not matter. I'm not even sure what matters when you look back over a life span or a couple of life spans, outside of attitude and positive creative outlook on life...

    Questions: I finally start to get a better understanding that questions are used by people in different ways. People ask questions to discover or understand (like you), but people also use questions to test others, to fill the space, to provoke and create discomfort, to judge...

    So, how do we make clear with which intent our questions are used? Is it important that the receiver of the questions understand our intentions? Good food for more questions, my love...

  2. I have a few questions, Tef:
    Who is your favorite child, today, and why?
    Do you agree that you are one of Iris' possesions?

    And to Iris: there is another category: the people who asks questions to show how clever they are - in that case it's very usefull for people to understand that this is the case, because they do not really want you to answer, they want you to want to get their answer.

    -- and yes: I used to be that third category until I learned that it was difficult to learn anything new and that it was exhausting and boring to live that way...

  3. Hi Joy,

    That's easy, at this moment it would be Eila and for lots of reasons. The reason that first comes to mind is that she so enthusiastically engages and is up for pretty much anything.

    I'm happily Iris' most treasured possession.

  4. And do you have a favorite question?

  5. Favorite question? Beyond "would you like me to pick up sushi on the way home?", I love it when someone asks a thoughtful or provocative question and then tenaciously pursues the answer, pulling at all the threads until we've completely unraveled it.

    My least favorite questions are the ones where the questioner doesn't seem particularly interested in hearing the answer.

  6. - it does sound as if you have more experience asking than being asked, so how about a favorite question that you ask?

    Smiling Joy
    Thanks for your answers

  7. My favorite questions are those that help me (and the person being asked) get in touch with passion. I used to believe that I was passionate about music. Then I became passionate about technology.

    However, I realize that I am passionate about passion. It pretty much doesn't matter what the object of the passion is. I love listening to people talk about and embrace their passions.

  8. As I walked the dog tonight I wondered: what is bigger - the love you hold because of ... or the love you hold inspite of ...

    If you love your children simply because you chose to you might not love one more than another - you might just hold a different kind love for each of them.

  9. So, do we then just have a communication error? It seems that people translate: "most favorite child" into "the child we love the most"? If it would be translated as: "which child are you most passionate about" or "which child do you relate with most" we would probably get very different responses.

    Now I am thinking: Why do most people respond to the question as if their love is questioned instead of their passion or how they relate together. Hmmm...

  10. Iris: I think the word 'favorite' is rather loaded. On reading your last comment, I looked for a definition of the word on the net, and this is the first thing I found:
    fa·vor·ite (fvr-t, fvrt)
    a. One that enjoys special favor or regard.
    b. One that is trusted, indulged, or preferred above all others, especially by a superior: a favorite of the monarch.
    2. A contestant or competitor regarded as most likely to win.
    Liked or preferred above all others; regarded with special favor

    So it's clear that a preference or ranking is involved, which calls for a judgment, since love/passion/relatability aren't exactly objective. And of course, all of us have interesting responses to judgements, either others' or our own.

  11. Ahh... Sree, that's the point exactly. The goal is not to ask the question in a manner that does not require judgment; it's to ask the question in a manner that calls attention to the judgments we hold (no matter how fleeting.)

    Whenever we're dealing with or kids (or anyone else for that matter), we hold biases (judgments). They might be judgments on the order of great, greater, greatest, but they're judgments nonetheless.

    When we deny that we have a favorite (in the moment), we blind ourselves to the biases that we hold, in particular, the ones that may be influencing a decision.

    Sometimes our judgments have a reverse-discrimination effect. For example, we might decide in favor of the less-favored child in order to compensate for an undeclared bias for the favored child.

    If we're open about the biases, then we at least have the opportunity to make decisions in the light thereof.

  12. Nice... like a mirror or magnifying glass. Some people say "ew, I don't like how I look, or how that wart looks", and others say "fascinating, I never saw myself like that, or I didn't know I had that wrinkle, etc".


  13. Iris: maybe it's not a 'communication error' then, just the perils of using a very common word that admits of multiple interpretations, all involving judgements.

  14. i like Iris' comments to her husband about asking questions: i suspect he does often have those 'hidden agendas' she mentions. I doubt that rarely would someone ask several people "who's you favorite child," with any sense of truly wanting to 'get' an actual answer. Instead this seems like a not-very-transparent way to make someone uncomfortable, to try to get them to admit that they have a favorite when it's culturally not very accepted to say you have one. I think it's almost always the case that one who likes to play these kinds of games with people is self-aggrandizing and is readily summed up by many around him as full of crap. But play on, if this is indeed the way you pursue your happiness.

  15. Dear Anonymous,

    I didn't talk about "hidden agenda's" and I do believe you interpreted my comment in a way as it was not meant, but which clearly shows the truth of my statement.

    In daily life we all get interpreted and judged by other through their filters, their opinions, their judgments. If someone believes you are "BAD" how could you show you are "GOOD"? PFFF, good question huh! The thing is: I cannot make you see me as good or bad; that is for you to decide. The same counts for questions. I cannot know for sure what questions you would or would not like to have thrown at you. Does that mean I should not ask?! There are different ways to deal with this, which you can find spread through our articles.

    On the beliefmakers site we, the authors, share who we are and share our insights, growth spurts and struggles. We belief this gives you the opportunity to take a glance at your own life and what you have created there. We hope some of our writing may even inspire you to make changes to your life that make you even happier than you may already be.

    I guess that if you were in the opportunity to get to know my husband in person, you would rather skip the opportunity. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to say that? Your comment above piled with words like: “self-aggrandizing, full of crap, play on, not-very-transparent, 'hidden agendas, to try to get them to admit” seem to indicate you have not yet read a lot on this site, or that you have a strong commitment to judgment and taking things personally.

    I would love to have heard in your comment, why the question about the favorite child is for you such a hard one to answer. I also would have loved to hear from you why you believe that the person bringing the question, in this case my husband, would do this to make you uncomfortable.

    I hope you will continue reading, and recommend you to also read some of the earlier stuff we have written. I invite you to show a lit more of yourself next time, we can learn from you if you let us...

  16. Yo anonymous, what's your agenda?

  17. Dear Anonymous, I thought it would be useful to examine your comment more closely. It’s really more for my benefit than yours, but if you’d care to respond, maybe we can take this discussion further. (Your words are in quotes, with my notes/questions interspersed).

    “i like Iris' comments to her husband about asking questions: i suspect he does often have those 'hidden agendas' she mentions.” It would help if you can state the basis for this suspicion. Also, towards the end of Tef’s post, he writes: "Sometimes people assume I have some agenda other than hearing what they have to say. Over time, people tend to see that this isn't the case, but it can take a long time.” I think you walked right into that one :-).

    “I doubt that rarely would someone ask several people "who's you favorite child," with any sense of truly wanting to 'get' an actual answer.” I can see how this is rare.

    “Instead this seems like a not-very-transparent way to make someone uncomfortable...”: considering this blog’s Option roots, a basic working premise is that we can’t *make* someone uncomfortable; they generate the discomfort themselves – possibly using our question as the stimulus.

    “... to try to get them to admit that they have a favorite when it's culturally not very accepted to say you have one.” Ah, I think this is the crux of the matter. If you review the comments above this one, you’ll see mine where I refer to how loaded the word favorite is, and then Tef’s response that being aware of our biases opens up opportunities to alter our decisions. Maybe you dashed off your comment in the first flush of discomfort, without letting the whole conversation sink in.

    “I think it's almost always the case that one who likes to play these kinds of games with people is self-aggrandizing and is readily summed up by many around him as full of crap.” You know, Anonymous, I bet Tef has been called that by people before. But I see you stopped short of absolute generalizations, and instead wrote “it’s *almost* always the case”. How convinced are you that Teflon isn’t one of your exceptions?


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