Early in my career, a client asked me to meet with her president for an hour-long lunch. Her president was an industry innovator, but, she told me, he was 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.
Dad said that people like nothing more than to hear the sound of their own voice; the problem is that many people can’t find their voice. Instead of telling amusing anecdotes, dad suggested that I ask the president questions about his work, family, and hobbies.
The next day, at lunch with the reticent president, I asked question after question. The one-hour lunch stretched beyond two, and he talked almost non-stop. He waxed eloquent on his fly-fishing hobby. He explored the mysteries of different fly rods. He told tales of the intricacies—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 meeting. He said that the reclusive president practically bubbled with passion about our lunch conversation. He wanted each executive to meet with me. He said I was the greatest conversationalist he had ever met.
The thing was, I hadn’t told a single story. Not one. I just asked him questions.
Helping Someone Find Their Voice
Within each person dwells an inner life. We only see the outer shell—their green eyes or narrow nose, their title, their introverted or outgoing exterior. But hiding just beneath the surface lurks the real person.
Each inner self possesses a treasure trove of hard-fought wisdom that longs to express itself. It understands life from a rich and unique perspective. Inside every heart is an ache to be heard.
But the world is noisy: politicians and podcasts, headlines and headphones, saturate the stage to deafen us. There’s no room for another voice. Our unformed thoughts crave expression. There is something deep we wish to communicate. But we can’t find the words.
Until someone asks us questions. Questions are the tools of the explorer, the treasure maps and flashlights of the heart-hunter. Through them we find the trails and tunnels into the inner soul of another human.
Questions unlock the voice in another person. We give him or her a stage on which to speak. Questions lead to more questions as a kind of “Encore, encore! We want to hear more!”
And 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 within him was expressed. While simple—tying fish flies—the experience of shared wonder connected us. A client became a friend. A fellow human found a voice, an ability to express an inner secret.
He and I began to meet a couple times a year for lunch. He told me of his first love, getting married, seeing his children born, and of difficulties, and successes. He marveled, “I’ve never said this before.” I shared his wonder. Our hearts connected. Not every time, but often.
He began asking me questions. He grew curious about my curiosities. He became fascinated with skiing, though he hated the cold. He took an interest in my family, though he never met them. He marveled at computers, though he still poked away on his old manual typewriter.
This shy, retiring president began to help me find my voice. In doing so, he doubled our bond. There was something miraculous in seeing him take the conversational initiative, as he forgot himself to turn his laser-like focus on me. Somehow, he had been transformed.
The Secret Ingredient
Questions can give another person a voice, but they don’t always. An often-forgotten spiritual truth is we must have before we can give. We must be loved before we give love (1 John 4:19); we can only offer comfort with the comfort we’ve been given (2 Cor. 1:4).
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 other people 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. In conversation. My parents taught me to take every question God asks in scripture and answer it back to God. I began to make a list.
Click here for a partial list of questions that 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 pondering.
I connect with God, and it creates in me an almost wordless wonder.
This is an edited excerpt from my book , Hearing God in Conversation. It is written with the idea of a personal engagement and connection with God.
Hearing God is supposed to be normal. God himself longs for us to grow in intimacy with him; and the greatest way to know God is to learn to hear his voice.
This is God’s plan for us and our greatest longing: to know the God Who Is.
When Eugene Peterson read it, he said:
I picked it up and I couldn’t put it down.
Besides, what are we saved for?