Twenty-five years ago a client asked me to meet with her president for an hour-long lunch. Her president was an industry innovator. But, she told me, the president was also almost wordlessly introverted. She proposed I come prepared with a stockpile of stories to fill the conversational void.
The night before my visit, I talked with my father. He suggested an alternate plan.
My father said there is nothing people like more than to hear the sound of their own voice. Instead of telling amusing anecdotes, he suggested I ask questions.
The next day (at lunch with a reticent president) I asked question after question. The one-hour lunch stretched beyond two, and he talked almost non-stop. He waxed eloquent of his fly fishing hobby. He explored the mysteries of different fly rods. He told tales of the intricacy—and successes and failures—of tying fish flies.
After two and a half hours, he glanced at his watch astonished. He was late for his weekly executive board meeting.
A board member later laughed about that board meeting. He said that the reclusive president practically bubbled with passion about our lunch. He wanted each executive to meet me. He said I was the greatest conversationalist he had ever met.
The thing was, I hadn’t told a story. Not one. I just asked questions.
Helping someone find their voice
Within each person dwells an inner life. We mostly see their outer shell—their green eyes or narrow nose, their title, or their introverted or extroverted exterior.
But within that shell, hiding just beneath the surface, resides the true person.
Each inner self possesses a treasure trove of wisdom and experience that is longing to express itself; it observes and understands the world with a rich and unique perspective.
Inside every heart is an ache to be heard. But the world is a noisy place; iPods and iPhones—and headlines and headphones—saturate the stage and deafen our ears. There’s no room for another voice.
Every human has an inner voice that aches to be unleashed. We have inarticulate, unformed thoughts that are desperate for expression; there is something deep we wish to communicate, but we can’t find the words.
Until someone asks questions. Questions are the tools of the explorer; they are the treasure maps and flashlights of the heart hunter. By them we find the trails and tunnels into the inner life of another human heart.
Questions unlock that voice in another person. We give them a stage on which to speak. Questions lead to more questions, as a kind of “Encore, encore; we want to hear more.”
And something magical can happen
Every once in a while something magical happens—something almost divine. Our soul touches another soul. We encounter the real inner person.
During my lunch with the president, I asked what he liked so much about tying tiny flies. He paused, as though he had never verbalized this thought before. Then he softly breathed, “I love the perfection, the tiniest of details; I simply love the craft of it.”
His eyes widened in wonder, “I’ve never told this to a soul before. Not even to my wife.”
He saw my shared wonder. Somehow, in some way, something inarticulate from within him was expressed. While simple—tying fish flies—the shared experience of wonder connected us. He had found a voice, an ability to express an inner compelling.
Over the years
He and I began to meet a couple times a year for lunch. He told me of his first love, of getting married, of seeing his children born, of difficulties, and of successes.
He frequently marveled, “I’ve never said this before.” I shared his wonder at his own expressions. Our hearts connected. Not every time, but often.
He began asking me questions. He grew curious about my curiosities. He became fascinated with skiing, while hating the cold. He took interest in my family, though he never met them. He marveled at computers, but he still used a typewriter.
The secret ingredient
Questions can give another person a voice, but they don’t always.
It’s an easy to ask questions for our own sake, to think, “My, what a profound question I just asked.” That is, we use them to find our own voice. The only way to really help others find their voice is to let someone else help us find ours first.
The president began asking me questions only after his voice had been heard.
The surest way to find our voice is to let God ask us questions, and answer them back as he listens. Someone once suggested I take every question God asks in scripture, and answer it back to God. I began to make a list.
Attached is a PDF with questions Jesus asks of others. As I’ve answered them back to God, I’ve sensed his attention on me, almost his curiosity at my inner reflections. And when I finally get to the bottom of an issue, I’ve sensed his delight in my wonder.
I’ve connected with God, and it creates in me an almost wordless wonder.