Every question is really a statement
In the 1970’s I did a lot of what was then called ‘Group Work.’ It had to do with learning to communicate, and to come to know one’s self through talking together in groups. The very first day I went to this group process, we were getting ourselves organised into groups with a pair of ‘trainers’ in each group. I happened to be talking to one of the trainers. He asked me hoe I was doing. I said ‘Well, when you come to a place for the first time, you feel a bit anxious.’ He replied “Who?” I’m not sure if you want to tell me some thing about yourself or about me” I said ‘Of course, I’m feeling anxious.” “Ah, he replied. You’re anxious. I am a bit too. I always am on the first day of a new group.’
That was my first group lesson in communication: if I want to say something, then make it a statement about what I notice of think. The effect of this is that it leaves the other person free to respond without feeling as if someone else is saying something about them.
The second part of this interchange (which was later elaborated many times) taught me something about the nature of questions. They are so much a part of normal life aren’t they? ‘What time does the bus go?’ ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Why are you doing that?’
In group work I learned that each question is really like a fish-hook into another person. The classic is ‘When did you stop beating you wife?’ In group-work they taught us Every question is really a statement and some information about yourself that has been turned around.’ It is true. “When does the bus go?’ is really the statement ‘I am not sure of when the bus goes. I would like some help please’.
At the trivial level of information swapping the asking of questions does not matter, but saying I…” is good practice for more important matters. For example, I have not preached from the pulpit. Some people have asked ‘Why are you not preaching from the pulpit?” Another person said ‘I am a bit confused by your not preaching from the pulpit. I would appreciate hearing what you are trying to do.” One asks something of me. The other shares something of the other.
So the rule I learned was ‘to share my perceptions’ It means that I own my own thoughts and feelings and leave the other person free to respond.
But there is something more important at stake in this manner of speech: the learning of self awareness. Here is a quote about self awareness that we had in an article by Daniel goldman in the Harvard Business Review of 1998. It says “People with high self awareness are able to speak accurately and openly –although not necessarily effusively or confessionally- about their emotions and the impact that they have on their work. For example one manager I know was sceptical about a new personal-shopper service that her company…was about to introduce. Without prompting…she offered them an explanation ‘It’s hard for me to get behind the rollout of this service,’ she admitted, ‘because I really wanted to run the project, bit I wasn’t selected. Bear with me while I deal with that.’ The manager did indeed examine her feelings, and a week later, was fully supporting the project.”
Learning this kind of communication helps us in the Church in two ways that I want to share with you.
First of all there are always decisions to be made. It is important that all the parties to making a decision be able to offer their views. How those views are expressed will determine how they are heard. If everyone makes ‘I” statements about their feelings and thoughts, then to the benefit of everyone they will be received better. If a person makes ‘You’ statements then I find that my response is to want to limit, and minimise the effect of that person’s contribution. We move away from communication into politics.
But the other reason that practising self awareness is important is that it plays a role in how God changes us. There is a way of reading the bible that has lots in common with the Ignation Exercises, as well as the Benedictine ‘Lectio Divina’. This method however comes from Africa. Here is the model. A reading from the gospel is read aloud. Each person says the thing in the reading that captures their attention. Then the reading is read again, and each person says how that part of the reading touches them. Then the reading is read a third time, and each person says what they think god is asking them to do differently that week.
The thing that I notice that most people have difficulty with is the part that goes ‘How does the thing that I notice affect me? What is going on inside of me that this thing should stand out at this time?’ It is true that the parts of Scripture to which we are unconsciously drawn, will be the places that light up where we need to pay attention.
It is not often however that we are asked to give an account to others of the ‘inside’ of our awareness. Tis is the skill that can be learned. The value in learning this skill is that a person’s faith gradually becomes something that is ‘theirs’, about which they can speak from experience rather than something that remains ‘mysterious’ but which is just accepted.
St Peter asks us always to be ready to give an account of the faith that is in us. It is this being able to give an account to others which both strengthens our faith and is a credible witness to others. This process of becoming a credible witness begins with being aware of how the Bible speaks to our lives in such a ways as to make a difference. Self awareness begins with learning to say “In situation X, when you do ‘Y, I feel Z. Right now I am feeling (Sad, Mad, Glad, Scared: there are four feelings or mixtures of them).
When trying this out in congregations, some people reject the process because they call it ‘navel gazing’. I reject their rejection. Navel gazing is designed for self gratification. Self awareness is aimed at effective communication. This for me is one of the marks of love.