Yesterday morning I attended a program at Sacred Ground (one of their monthly development programs aimed primarily at spiritual directors) presented by Diane Millis on Contemplative Conversations: Accompanying Adults in the First Half of Life. Given the spiritual formation work I do with law students, the topic is one of great interest to me, and Millis (founder and director of the Journey Conversations Project and author of Conversation: The Sacred Art) has been working with young people for a long time.
Much of what Diane talked about, particularly with respect to how we listen and respond to each other has broad application. In any of the communities of which we are a part, we can learn to listen more compassionately and respond to each other more contemplatively.
Often, when someone shares something with us, particularly if they are in a discerning phase, our approach is to respond with statements – assertions, analysis, advise. We could help the other far more by asking evocative, contemplative questions designed to evoke deeper reflection in the other person.
One of the things Diane talked about (familiar to all with training as a spiritual director or in other listening professions) is the difference between conventional questions and contemplative questions. Conventional questions seek information, while contemplative questions nurture the other’s awareness. The former restricts avenues of exploration, the latter expands the arena of exploration. The former elicits a rehearsed response, the latter evokes reflection. The forme may or may not resonate with a person’a experience, the latter usually does.
Consider the difference between asking a child “What happened in school today?” (which, when my daughter was young, usually elicited “Nothing” as a response) and “What was the best thing about your day today?”
Or between asking a recent graduate, “What are you going to do now?” and “What is your passion?”
Training ourselves to ask contemplative questions of each other, rather than seeking to answer each other’s questions gives us a deeper way to be present to each other.