by Dr. Anne Silver ’02, Affiliate Professor and Director of the Center for Christian Spirituality
One of the things spiritual direction students learn is how to ask good questions. Based on the belief that spiritual directors and spiritual directees both are to listen for the promptings of God during their conversations, directors try to include questions that offer space for new perspectives.
If we think about questions we ask in our daily conversations, chances are some of those questions feature our own agendas. For example, “Have you considered seeing a therapist about this?” isn’t an agenda-free question; it’s a recommendation. If a colleague asks, “Is that really what you want to do?”, that may seem more like a criticism than a straightforward question. When our parents used to say, “Why haven’t you cleaned your room?”, they weren’t asking us to share our thoughts about the upkeep of domestic space; they were telling us what we had better do.
The author and educator Parker Palmer teaches about what he calls “open, honest questions.” Based on the centuries-old Quaker discernment practice of clearness committees, such questions are designed to invite people to pay attention to the “inner teacher” (or, as others might say, the Holy Spirit). These sorts of questions do not advise, fix, judge, or shift the focus to the questioner. They can be particularly helpful in situations where options need to be explored or we feel stuck.
So spiritual directors try to use questions that honor their directees’ own access to God’s guidance and how they might perceive it. For example:
“What possibilities have you considered so far?”
“Where did you feel the most energy in that situation?”
“What was it like when you prayed about this concern?”
“What would you like God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit to help you with right now?”
The pace can be slower than in other conversations. When our directees respond to a question, directors try not to jump in right away with a comment or observation. If instead we keep listening, chances are they will continue to reply. That expanded reply may include ideas or possibilities that neither of us would have thought of otherwise.
Certainly there are times in most conversations when our own opinions, experiences or suggestions are called for. But when someone asks us an open, honest question—and then listens closely to an unhurried response—we may feel like we’ve been given a precious gift. And this practice works in all aspects of life. We all can benefit from asking open, honest questions—and listening well to the answers.