Monday, January 14, 2013

Questions: Learning some basic social skills, aged 33 and a half.

We were eating dinner and my friend Sean said to me... "what have been the highlights of the year for you guys?" It was a great question and yet I found myself fumbling for an answer. Last year wasn't without highlights I just didn't know what to say, I fumbled my way to some kinds of an answer...

The question exposed something in me: that I'd not taken good time to reflect on the year or to be thankful.

The question served me well because I was subsequently able to go away and take time to reflect, and have many things to be thankful for, many memories to treasure. The kinds of things that dominate people's blogs in late December

The question served me because it got me thinking about questions. Sean's question was about information gathering, but it was - I think - as much about getting to know us, and to share in our lives.

Jesus said the heart is revealed by the mouth - or, what comes out of the mouth comes form the heart.
So, if you want to know someone's heart you have to get them talking.

I spend my days meeting people. And I love that. I worked in a bank for a while - because I got the job - and because I wanted to work with people. And it's one of the things I love most about doing the 'ministry' job I currently have. I love people.

However, I've wasted many encounters with people by my weak social skills. Things in which I can grow, by practice and with support from others.

I spent new years eve at a party. I'm not good at parties, especially when I don't know people very well. But I'd rather be there, struggle and learn than avoid being there. Life is for learning. Learning is messy and awkward, but worth while. Some people can work a room effortlessly, some of us bumble through, and some of us don't bother. I'd rather stumble through awkwardly than not bother, though I wouldn't have said that a few years ago.

A small proportion of my workplace meetings are with my peers. The vast majority are either with people with 10-15 years less life and ministry experience (students and student workers) or 10-30 years more life and experience (church leaders). How can I approach these?

Andy Stanley reflects on someone spending a day or two with his dad. The man was awestruck by his hero (Stanley's father) and just talked at him the whole time. He missed entirely the opportunity to ask questions and learn something! That happens to me (without the hero worship), and I do it to others.

Good meetings often entail the elder not telling the younger what to do, but enabling them to reflect and grow by asking questions, and genuinely listening. And the younger drawing out the elder with questions so that they can learn from them.

Oxford Professor John Lennox says, "keep asking questions until someone asks you one back..." - when you see me sitting silently, I'm probably having an introvert moment of precious silence in which I'm pondering good questions. The way to to break that silence does need to be a bit more imaginative than "what are you thinking?"

Meetings between people are learning opportunities for both, not self-exhibitions. I miss too many opportunities by talking instead of asking. There are occasions when I ask a question and it serves me by helping me learn from someone else, and by building heart-to-heart relationship. And there are occasions where I ask a question and it serves someone else by helping them to reflect, and by building heart-to-heart relationship.

What are your favourite questions to be asked by other people - and to ask of others?

With thanks to Dale Carnegie for his book, Andy Stanley for his leadership podcast, my pastor, and my friends who are helping me to grow.

5 comments:

  1. I love your honest reflections here. Believe it or not, I really struggled with conversation with new people until I was about 17. I watched my best friend effortlessly converse with complete strangers and I realised her secret - asking interesting questions, and then responding enthusiastically and sharing something of her own experience when she identified something in the reply that she could relate to. I mentally recorded her questions. It's totally something you can teach yourself to do.

    Some of my favourites for getting to know new people are:
    'tell me the story of your life' (if there's a long time to chat - I love hearing the whole picture);
    'If you were a Winnie the Pooh character, what would you be?' (Jon always answers 'Christopher Robin' - don't know what that tells you about him...!)
    The old 'highlights/lowlights/hopes' is good for looking back and forward.
    'What's exciting you at the moment?'
    'What's big in your life at the moment?'
    'What does life look like for you at the moment?'
    'What's new with you?'
    'If your life at the moment was a type of weather, what would it be?'
    'What are you looking forward to this term/year/summer?'

    'What's your favourite book of the Bible?'
    'Who's your favourite Christian hero (not in the Bible)?'
    'What was your ambition when you were a child? What is it now?'
    'How's your relationship with God at the moment?' (I'm quite blunt, aren't I?)

    'If you could go to any country in the world, what would it be?'
    'What good books have you been reading lately?' (Or good films, good TV etc - shared popular culture = v easy to talk about)
    If someone were to offer to pay you to do further study, what would you study? (These are all a bit middle class, aren't they?)
    What's your favourite musical instrument?

    These are all just things I like finding out about people! So I just ask...

    As long as you preface it with, 'So - here's a question', ask with a tone of excitement and interest in your voice, and then hold people's gaze unblinkingly, I tend to find they will answer anything. :-)

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  2. Great, encouraging stuff Bish! I find myself identifying with your struggles, especially the danger of talking at people. The awkwardness of learning (in the social sphere) often puts me off trying altogether. However I remember at moments like this that I don't want to not bother, deep down. Thanks for being honest and vulnerable!

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  3. There is another factor which has to be considered, Dave, and that is modern technology. It is so easy to have conversations via text messages/emails etc without actually interacting in real life. And the computer is a way we can hide our insecurities, even live in a cyber/dream world. It worries me sick when I look at young(er) ones who have been born into this digital world. Human contact is vital, because that is when we realise that humans are fallible and yet still wonderful.
    On another note, I used to be shy once upon a time, long long ago.Unbelievable, I know! And when my first son was born, I realised that I had to get out there and make friends, or I would be depriving him of a bigger, more exciting world. And talking was the only way. And listening. Those friends I made back then are still my friends, and they have coloured my life and taught me an immense amount. Good for you - just put down the phones, and look at the human faces, and the eyes will tell you what to say next.

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  4. thank you. That is all. Have been brave (aged 36) twice in last couple of weeks largely because of this post - have failed completely both times, but been grateful of help to try.

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