Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Asking questions, a simple and profound kindness

What is most important to a person's happiness?

That may not be the right question to pose given that it's 2 AM :) But an answer's already popped into my brain, so here goes: assuming there are many good answers, one possibility is that it's essential to feel connected to the people and world around us. It's important to feel valued, relevant, understood, and a sense of interdependency with at least a handful of people, if not more. If that's the case, then sincerely asking others about how they feel and what they think about this or that may be one of the kindest things a person can do. Nothing builds bridges like asking questions and, unless the people you're with feel comfortable freely volunteering information about themselves, there is no other way to bridge the divide.

The topic's been on my brain because I just had some conversations with people who are unable to do that. I asked them a question, they answered. I asked another, they answered. And so on and so on . . . and if I didn't ask them something, the conversation would go dead. I've been in so many conversations like that it seems. From my experience, most people love to chat about themselves and very few people socialize with the intent of connecting with others. If they wanted to connect, if they wanted it to be a two-way-thing, . . . they would ask questions.

Can you judge a person's character by how well they converse? I think so. I'm not referring of course to the size of their vocabulary or the profundity of their thoughts. I'm referring to the extent to which they converse for the purpose of connecting with others. Do they monopolize conversations, stealing the spotlight and promote their agendas? Or do they use conversations as opportunities to share their own opinions *and* have their minds enriched by the input of others? Or simply to laugh with others, share a moment in time with another person?

The people whom I most respect are excellent conversationalists. They possess the ingredients necessary for great conversation: confidence and curiosity. They like themselves enough to share their own thoughts, but, because they are curious about the world around them and because they genuinely care about other people, they are equally interested in knowing what others have to say.

On the flip side, the people I know who are the most self-centered and mean are the worst conversationalists. They constantly talk about themselves and their favorite topics and when it comes to other people and things in life they don't know about, they just don't care.

Somewhat on a tangent, I've decided that one of the meanest things a person can do is intentionally isolate another person. There are people in my life who, I'm sorry to say, are very mean and emotionally abusive. The way they abuse others is by isolating them: never laughing at their jokes, never sharing their opinions on anything, making them feel alone or awkward for feeling a certain way or saying a certain thing, not making eye-contact, flat out ignoring them and, of course, *never* asking questions. As someone who's been on the receiving end of that, I can say that isolation is one of the most painful things I've ever experienced. That makes connectedness one of the most joyful things I've ever experienced. Again, ask questions :) Or smile. Include the other person, etc. etc.

As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate kindness in others much more than I used to. Lately, I've found myself wanting to reach out to people I remember from my past who possessed that rare quality of truly caring about the world around them and the people in it . . . people who reached out to me. I can think of an old piano teacher, an aunt and uncle and a cousin. It's a short list, really. But I want people like that in my life. I think they possess a greatness, a generosity of spirit that inspires me to be a better person.

I've also re-evaluated what really matters when it comes to interacting with people. It's great if you're beautiful, funny, intelligent, . . . the life of the party as they say. But the thing that qualifies you to socialize is your desire to connect with others. As long as you approach any social situation with the desire to obtain some kind of mutual understanding, then it's a success. I have to keep that in mind sometimes, seeing as how I'm a rather reserved, quiet person. I never feel like I have anything to say. But that doesn't matter, actually. What matters is how well I reach out.

I'm too lazy now that it's 3:30 AM to give this a proper conclusion. Let's just say that I don't want to be like those people earlier who never ask questions if only because, in the long run, self-centered people end up isolating themselves. They don't grow. They're always on the defensive. They already know everything, and, as a result, they refuse to learn anything new. They're unable to truly cooperate with others and bring out the best in other people, which makes them unable to be partners in lasting, meaningful friendships and relationships. Sadly, for those emotionally abusive people I talked about earlier, I've watched the arc of their lives. I've watched them destroy themselves and so many good things. It's a poison. It's harrowing. It's tragic.

Ask questions.