A question that is not a question

BY AL EARLEY

Religion columnist

The parent walks into the room to see her son smack his little sister upside the head.  The little sister wails with a scream that seems out of proportion to the “love” tap she has received from her big brother.  Chaos seems to be in control when mom asks her son, “Why did you do that?”  Can you guess what his response was?  It certainly didn’t lessen the chaos.  The answer is sure to be either “Because” or “I don’t know.”  Neither of which gets mom any closer to resolving the chaos.    Why didn’t mom get a helpful answer when she asked a “why” questions.  The reason this is true is because “Why” questions are not really questions at all.  They are statements disguised as questions.  When we ask, “Why did you do that?” we are really saying, “Don’t do that!”  Few of us likes to do things that cause another person a problem on purpose.  Our actions, conscious and subconscious, are done to meet a personal need, and so we do the other person a great service by not belittling them with questions they don’t know the answer to.  Often the other person is embarrassed or insulted when we ask “Why” questions they cannot fully answer, especially when it is in front of other people.

If you are at work, and a co-worker is not doing their work well it is tempting to ask in front of everyone, “Why did you do that in that way?”  This will put the person on the spot, especially if they aren’t sure of the answer.  If we were to ask, “Where did you learn to do that in that manner?” we may find they have never been trained, or they learned it the wrong way from a previous job.  This gives us the chance to properly instruct them without embarrassing them, and we will earn their respect in the process.

It is better to ask questions that start with “Who, what, when, where, or how?”  For example, if our son colors on his bedroom wall with permanent marker, if we ask, “Why did you do that?” we will likely get the maddening response of, “I don’t know.”  Our son will learn how to better meet his needs if we ask something like, “What did you hope to gain by coloring all over the walls?”

The response may be something like, “I love to color on big surfaces.  It allows me to be more creative.”  At this point we have learned a whole lot about our child.  We can now point out that bedroom walls are not the best place to experiment with permanent markers, and work to find a more acceptable way for our child to explore his creativity without getting punished.  We can help him understand there are better ways to get what he wants.

Jesus usually asked questions like, “What do you want, Where can you get that, How did this happen?” When Jesus met the blind man named Bartimaeus he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see” (Mark 10:51).  At first glance Jesus’ question seems odd.  Why would a healer ask a blind man what he wants?  But never assume sick or crippled people want to be healed.

Many times I have been surprised by what people actually want when they come to me for help.  My favorite example was the man who came to me with hepatitis C, deep financial troubles due to his medical bills, and he had just received custody of his 5-year old daughter.  I figured he was coming looking for money, but fortunately I followed Jesus’ example and asked what he wanted me to do for him.  He told me about a time in his life when he had it together, and he realized it was when he had an active faith and church life.  He wanted me to help him make a recommitment of faith to Jesus Christ, and help him turn his life around.  That day he gave his life to Christ, he and his daughter rarely missed worship, he learned to pray, read the Bible, and live a life of integrity.  He turned out to be the most talented carpenter in town, and within a year his financial troubles were solved.  Through prayer and a good doctor his hepatitis C went into remission.

I rarely ask my wife, children, and church members “why” questions, and I have found this to improve my communication with them immensely.  How often do you ask “Why” questions?  Could you improve your communication by asking questions a different way?   

To find out more about Al Earley or read previous articles, see www.lagrangepres.org.