His hands were tied behind his back and he was standing on the outside of the bridge railing, preparing to jump. As I moved towards him, he shouted over to me: “One step further and I’ll jump!” He sounded hoarse and it was clear he had been crying. I stopped and stood, waiting.
This occurred six years ago, in the middle of the night, in Portland, Oregon. I had been biking along the river, taking a break from a college all-nighter when I came across this man.
I stopped, as instructed. And as I stood there I had an amazing experience. It was as if I was at the center of a deep, wide pool. His shout and threat were like a pebble hitting the surface and I was so deep down in the pool that they made no impact. Inside I felt quiet and still. “How are you feeling?” I asked him, calmly.
“Thinking is just the process of asking and answering questions.”
Today I make a habit of asking this sort of question. These questions sometimes sound a bit odd but provide the person I’m with to examine themselves in a way not otherwise available to them. I can only ask such questions by intentionally falling into that calm attitude that I found so many years ago on the river in Portland. In that state of mind, anything – and I do mean anything – that someone says is okay. In that mindset I am completely accepting and totally nonjudgmental. This is a mindset that I trained on my own and then later at the Option Institute. In what follows I’m going to detail a number of different reasons we ask questions and discuss what makes loving questions unique.
In my experience there are four different types of questions, each with its own purpose.
Questions that Judge
“Why did you do that!” (We often leave the “you idiot” left unsaid.)
The question “Why did I eat that pint of ice cream when I know I feel sick after eating ice cream?” is really a statement of self criticism. What I am actually saying is: “I’m dumb for having eaten ice cream. I should have known better!”
Questions to Learn
Imagine a reporter interested in your story. Reporters, and all of us, ask directive, inquiring questions to gain information.
Questions that Teach
Teachers ask their students subtle or even blatant leading questions like “Why do you believe that is the best answer to this math problem?” or “How would you go about solving it?”
Questions to Explore
“Why did you do that?”
That night on the bridge I used what I’ve come to think of as exploring questions. These are the rarest of questions in that they are non-directive and completely accepting. I have studied what is formally called “The Option Process(R) Dialogue” which teaches how to use these questions to help explorers come to their own conclusions. With the man on the bridge these are the sort of questions I asked. Guided by instinct and luck I asked the bridge jumper how he felt and then later why. I don’t know what would have happened if I had told him not to jump, or tried to teach him that he shouldn’t. I can speculate that things might not have gone so well.
For the record, I spent three hours with the man on the bridge. He ended up sitting and crying with me. The next morning he called his sister and I left him in her care.
Why Ask Loving Questions
Everyone has opinions and most people are willing to share them. What people don’t do, though, is set aside their personal biases and become completely present with another. Instead, meaning well, most people judge or try to fix. By providing the person questioned with the option to discover answers for themselves, we provide a safe space to step forward and, if we so choose, come to our own conclusions.
These are the four components of a loving question. These four make up what is termed the “attitude” by the Option Institute. I have called it the Attitude That Works.
This is what distinguishes these questions from all others. To ask these questions the questioner must completely let go of the belief that they know what’s best for another.
To ask non-directive questions the questioner must be completely present with the person being questioned. Otherwise, it is not possible to follow where they lead.
Often loving questions are asked in the face of self-judgements. It is essential to not buy in and engage with those judgements.
Of all four this is the most important. Having compassion for another is fundamental to asking this sort of question.
I don’t always ask loving questions. Not even most of the time. But I have the capacity to sit across from someone considering suicide or crying over heartbreak or jumping for joy, follow exactly what they say, and then ask them what they are thinking, what they feel or why. I’m not unique and anyone can learn to do this. The more I ask such questions the better I get. And as an added benefit: it feels great to be there for someone in this way.
So here’s my advice: next time you or someone you care for is in a slump, don’t try to fix them or solve the problem. Ask just one loving question. It can make a world of difference.