The Hospitality of Understanding

POSTED September 10, 2023 IN
deep listening

Image source: Bigstock | ©agsandrew

I’m always amazed when I’m with someone who knows how to ask genuinely compelling 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. We might plunge in and tell them what they could or should do to make things better. And, if we are paying attention, as this most well-meaning advice is given we will witness a glaze come over our friend’s face as they thank us and hurry to change the subject.

Novelist Vanna Bonta has said, “There is no hospitality like understanding.” This statement strikes a chord with me. It has been my experience that there can be no true understanding without a certain receptivity being present. 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. Allowing ourselves to be truly curious and assuming a posture of “not knowing” can bring about surprising and creative results.

I remember a time in my life when I had formed a lot of opinions about how life ought to work. I was handing out advice like beads being tossed off a Mardi Gras float. Now, I’m not quite so quick to offer advice, and I’ve learned, hopefully, to slow that process down.

Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” 

I truly believe that asking questions from deep curiosity is the most useful way to be of help. Pretending I’m from the planet Mars and don’t have any history of how things work on Earth can be helpful in seeing things with new eyes. I’m in awe whenever I’m in the presence of someone who has the ability to ask key questions from a place of deep listening. This open hospitality is the skillful means to which I aspire.

– Justine Willis Toms

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