Ask Questions with an Attitude That Works
I have spent most of the month of January refreshing my study of the Option Process Dialogue, a form of socratic questioning which I have found invaluable in my practice, personal life, and physical training. If you haven’t heard me discuss questions before then by way of introduction, I suggest reading my post Ask More Loving Questions.
In a world full of people willing to give advice, there is a scarcity of good questions asked without a directive intent. Thus the Option Process Dialogue, an incredible way of being present with another person and asking them questions. I completed a recent course alongside these five fabulous certified Option Process Mentors, each of whom have put in their 10,000 hours refining their practice and understanding of this process.
I have read Socrates’ thoughts on the purpose of questions and seen many fine examples of well-honed questions used to extract information, assist someone in hard times, or convince of a particular viewpoint. (For an amusing recent example of two world-class questioners take a look at this interview of Neal Strauss by Tim Ferriss.) While I don’t generally conduct playfully combative interviews, I recently practiced asking questions on a live stage…
Stretching for a Couples Dialogue
One scene from these last weeks stands out. I am in front of a room full of people, facing two friends – a couple. I am the “mentor,” responsible for asking these two questions and aiming for a non-directive, following attitude. Years ago, when I began my study of this dialogue process, it was a struggle to just be present with one person for 5 minutes at a time. Last January I acquired the requisite skills to maintain this presence for 50 or more minutes at a stretch, with few or no momentary lapses.
In the room with my friends this last week I stretched even further. I was asking both of them questions and switching back and forth between them based on my momentary decisions, best judgement, and trained instinct. The system for asking questions is straightforward. While there are many sub-components, it is loosely designed to help the “explorer” uncover beliefs, following an ABC for Adversity -> Belief -> Consequence model for understanding human behavior. We call it Stimulus -> Belief -> Response.
While I find the technique of questions equally fascinating, what actually makes ours unique and useful is the attitude with which we ask questions.
Practicing The Attitude that Works
In my work with autism I have reinterpreted the Option Institute term “attitude” into my own “attitude that works.”
This is the attitude that I look for and practice in gymnastics, in social dance, and throughout my life. I am by no means perfect – far from it! – but having the idea of an attitude that is effective has been very useful in increasing my own performance and inspiring learning in others. For examples of each of the following aspects of the attitude that works I will use examples from my work with autism.
The Autism Treatment Center of America has coined the phrase “love first, act second.” To me this suggests acting after considering the possible repercussions of the action. It means that when we act from a place of compassion for everyone involved (ourselves included) we are much more effective. This is especially true in working with children with autism.
Without many of the social standards and justifications that we take for granted these neuro-atypical individuals rely on their intuitive feel for the attitudes held by those around them instead of just the social niceties. This makes working with folks with autism an amazing, useful training ground to practice being in the attitude that works. You just can’t fake it! I was working with a little boy recently who kept adjusting his penis through his pants. My initial reaction was that that isn’t socially polite – that that was bad! I immediately saw myself judging his behavior is bad (in other words not loving him in that moment) and stopped. I don’t know why he was adjusting himself and if it some point I decide to teach him that that is the thing that most people in the world will expect he not do in public, great! But none of that is any reason to love him less, even for a moment.
When I left the lesson with the little boy this morning I came home and took a nap! I often find being present with a high-intensity child tiring. I think that the reason I find it tiring afterwards to give lessons to children is because I am absolutely present with them – with the little boy this morning – nonstop! I think of presence as a flow state (which is what it’s called in aikido. To be in the flow). I do this in gymnastics: I do not do around off back flip on the tumble track without first pausing to collect myself mentally and prepare myself for the upcoming physical feat. To practice being present I suggest finding something that you love to do and do well. Don’t start where it’s most difficult, start where it is easy! Notice what you do to enter that state of ease and timelessness, whether that be for a moment or for hours. Then begin to bring that same attitude of presence back to an activity that you find more challenging.
Nonjudgmental is my favorite. And my nemesis. I am very versed at judging myself and judging others. Like most people, I have been well trained at judging my entire life. For me being nonjudgmental has become a practice just like any other (meditation, gymnastics, social dance). As I did very briefly with the little boy described above I do still judge.
I remember a time very shortly after I started working with autism. I entered the playroom of a little girl I was seeing and she promptly pulled down her pants. My immediate response was “oh god!”. Clearly something here with bad. I did not get over my discomfort then nearly as quickly as I did this morning. I was new to working with children in those days. I completed the 30 minutes I was scheduled to be with her, left the room and discussed the situation with her mother. We realized there was actually nothing wrong with her behavior and with this newfound acceptance were much more effective at discussing with the girl aspects of why people do generally not pulled their pants down in public. Today I find not judging a child for his or her behavior relatively straightforward. I do occasionally still judge and then quickly let that judgment go. Whether with yourself or someone you love, what’s one judgement you hold and can you let it go, even for a moment?
This intersection of questions and attitude is at the intersection of all of the pursuits and practices in my life. I continue to seek an attitude of acceptance which results in increased performance. I have chosen to practice my own “attitude that works” with the high demand, high reward population of autistic children. As well, I have seen that transferring the use of that attitude towards asking non-directive questions of friends, family and colleagues can have profound outcome. Whether is the the idea of questions or one aspect of the attitude that works that most stands out to you, choose it and practice for the day.
P.S. if you are interested in more posts and information along these lines visit http://sonrisesf.com and enter your email. There’s a weekend of this coming up in April!