I’m always amazed when I’m with someone who knows how to ask truly great questions—the kind of questions that can be of true service. We’ve all had moments of being with friends who are going through a bad patch and we want to be of help, but we don’t know how. Or, maybe we jump in and tell them how they should or could change to make things better.
I remember how I used to think I had the solution for everyone’s problems. I could see clearly just what they needed to do to turn to their lives around for the better. Why didn’t they listen to me?
Why did they keep going down the same old road expecting different results?
Now, I’m not quite so quick to offer advice, and I’ve learned that asking key questions in a field of deep listening is a much more effective way of helping others. It’s about asking questions from a place of truly wanting to understand rather than from an accusatory place. To genuinely understand means to stand in another’s shoes. It’s only when I faithfully see things from another person’s viewpoint that my advice might be worth something. Asking questions from deep curiosity is the most useful way to be of help. I’ve found that pretending I’m from the planet Mars and that I don’t have any history of how things work on Earth is effective in seeing things with new eyes.
For example some years ago a friend was trying to help me to be more effective in my life. In observing my cluttered office she pointed out that it was holding me back from being effective. There were papers, folders, books, CDs, and other things crowded on my desk and the table behind me. It felt to me like some draconian head mistress was standing disapprovingly in my doorway and giving me a severe reprimand for my untidiness. Her disapproval was like a shot to my heart. She told me that when something lingers on my desk there is a leak my in energy and effectiveness.
In my defense I said I could put my hand on everything I needed, and that my important and current projects were all in folders neatly stored in the file cabinets behind me. I defiantly told her, “These papers and books in front of me are what came in today, and my desk was clean when I came into work this morning.”
Years later in an interview with psychologist David Bedrick I experienced a very different approach to my cluttered desk which, by the way, continues to suffer from anarchy and chaos. He’s a practitioner of Process Oriented psychology and, rather than following a prescribed diagnosis, he follows the energy and trusts wherever it takes him. He doesn’t advise so much as he prods his clients through his curiosity to uncover the deeper meani ng of their actions. He respects their temperaments and individual natures.
We did a very small session in the interview to give an example of how this kind of psychology works, which involved the holy mess on my desk. I told him how I do my work in a hodgepodge of papers, books, CDs. pens, post-its and other clutter. I confessed that every once in a while I try and clean it up but within short order it just piles up once more . I even suspect gremlins come in at night and create the wreckage. I went on to say that once I hired a professional organizational systems person to help me with this malady. As soon as she walked in the door I noticed that she seemed to exude the epitome of a circumspect, self-contained, quietude.
Even her clothes were quiet. She wore a moss colored silk blouse and a black skirt and was void of any jewelry. Her hair hung in a neat page-boy with straight bangs across her forehead.
On the other hand I’m unmuted in my appearance. I wear necklaces and earrings, and scarves and even feathers in my hair. I even dress cluttered. As she showed me many great techniques for uncluttering myself I could feel my inner voice saying, “No way am I going to be able to follow all these rules and routines.”
David just laughed at my description of this “professional.”
He then said, “You have a natural resistance to this thing. If people could see you when you talk about this clutter expert they would see you moving your hands up and down as if they were making a box and then when you talk about being free to clutter, your hands are out and open and waving in the air and you look like a happy expressive human being.”
He goes on to say that he doesn’t know about clutter but putting me into a tight box is not going to be so good for me. He reminds me that I’m a radio show host among other things, “So having all these different people that you’re i terested in, this is a part of the beauty of you. I’m here, I’m seeing the colorfulness of you and how you interview me and all the other people you interview and how you draw people of all different colors and sizes out. This is your nature. Could you clean up your desk? Maybe, but not at the expense of squelching all that celebration, variety, and diversity of life [that] is part of you”.
Rather than the schoolmarmish attitude that my friend, who once scolded me about the state of my office, or the rigid techniques and routines the “declutter expert” suggested, I feel instantly drawn to the way David coaxes me to look more deeply into the truth of my own personality. And if my desk needs decluttering, to find a method that works in coordination with my true nature. It is a matter of finding our own brilliant solutions from a field of deep noticing, and listening, and asking questions that draw out the truth.
—Justine Willis Toms