Wednesday, October 31, 2018

When Questions Aren't and Neither Are Requests

A long time ago, in a country that feels increasingly far, far away, I learned something important:

Many sentences with a ? at the end are NOT actually questions.

(I was probably watching Dr. Phil. Don't @ me.)

Here are a couple of sentences that read as questions that aren't actually questions:
* How could you do this to me?
* What were you thinking?

Recently I've (re-)discovered a corollary:

Many requests for input/feedback/thoughts are NOT sincere requests.

Silly me, I keep forgetting this corollary. So if someone asks what I think, I forget my lines. 

Here are some things I'm supposed to say instead of giving my opinion, even in a setting when we are all ostensibly encouraged to give input, even when I'm not taking the space of someone whose voice is traditionally underrepresented, even when I've been asked:
* Gosh, I don't know. What do you think?
* It's perfect as it is--no changes needed!
* Oh, I'm sure you're right!

Remembering these lines would save me time.

I wouldn't need to inform myself. I wouldn't need to do the work and actually listen to the podcast, read the article, read and analyze the book and its sources, read the conference program, consider the program guidelines, read the sample work, read the background, or ground myself in the context around the larger conversation.

I could allow my previous experience to dissipate--whether it's experience in writing, studying qualitative and quantitative research methods, reading in public policy, communicating science, performing service to the community, editing and publishing, completing grunt-level bureaucratic tasks, or evaluating programs.

I could allow (even more) people to tell me things they don't actually know. Loudly. Insistently. Sometimes, listening might be my actual work in this world. But sometimes, I'm not willing to let people yell opinions as if they were facts. I'm not interested in giving people time and space in my vicinity in which to speak with willful ignorance.

I could say instead, "Would you look at the time. See you!" And then leave. After all, waves crash on the shore. Trees lose their leaves. The moon rises. On a clear night, a shooting star might say hello. I would like to serve as witness to these things. I am welcome there.

To be fair, many people don't know what they're asking. (Especially in the past few years--many of us are wondering about the validity of our experiences.)

Full disclosure: I am not always clear on this myself. Sometimes I ask for input when I'm really asking whether this thing I'm doing is worth working on at all, whether it holds even the slightest speck of potential value. I ask for "honest feedback" when what I really want to know is whether this I'm just a horrible, suspicious, boring human being (with undernotes of tediousness and smug irritability).

So, maybe, THERE is my actual work: listening to the statements that are behind the questions-that-aren't-questions and the requests-that-aren't-requests.

Perhaps responding to those. Perhaps with questions, or perhaps with statements:
* Why are you asking?
* There may be other resources out there on this. 
* Why do you feel so strongly about this?
* You seem to feel very strongly about this.
* What kind of input are you looking for?
* Your work is thoughtful, even in rough form.
* You're the only person who can gauge whether you're finished, whether this is ready, whether you need more information.
* What's the worst that could happen?
* You seem hesitant to take action.

In other words, sometimes my work is to listen. Really listen.

But more often--especially lately--my work is to leave. With a smile.

Would you look at the time! The buck's in the back yard, foraging at the lilac bush. I must go watch.