Dramatically Improve Your Relationships With Brave Questions

If you don’t ask, you can’t expect to receive.

If you read last week’s Tip, you read about my personal losses and my discovery of Brave Questions. You read about the transformational power of questions — asking the right questions and listening in the right way. But let me finish the story.

My first serious use of the “Brave Question-20 Question” technique came in November, 1983. I was invited to a wedding along with my 83-year old grandmother. It was during our two-hour drive that I decided to “go for it.”

I said, “Grandma, I’ve got a game I’d like to play. It’s called ’20 questions.’ You can ask me anything at all, and I can ask you anything. Would that be okay? It will pass the time as we drive.” She said, “Sure.”

Now you have to realize that all my life I had known Grandma, but our conversations had always been superficial. We’d talk about the crafts she was making or what she was doing at the senior citizens’ center, but we never talked about what she thought, how she felt, or what really counted in life.

As a result, I thought I’d start the process with a relatively easy question. I said, “Grandma, you’ve lived a long time. What was the happiest moment of your life?”

I didn’t know what she would say. She replied, “I don’t know the happiest moment. I’ve had many. But I can think of the most blessed moment. Would that be all right?” I said, “Of course.”

She answered, “I don’t know if you know this, but when I was 16 years of age, I was single and got pregnant.” It stunned me. While it’s not acceptable to be 16, single, and pregnant today, I could only imagine how awful that must have been some 70 years before in a small, conservative, Midwest farm town.

She continued, “My parents disowned me. I had nowhere to go. But a nearby farmer said I could stay in a room attached to his barn. The night I was giving birth, a midwife came over to help me. I was crying, feeling full of shame and remorse, saying my whole life was ruined.”

But the midwife said, “I don’t see it that way. You could have left town, tried to abort or cover your tracks so no one could have made fun of you. But you did what you thought was right. And for that I respect you.”

Again I was stunned. I thought my first question for Grandma was an “easy” one that would bring a light answer. I was wrong. Our conversation went on and on as we continued our drive to the wedding.

And my understanding of the “Brave Question-20 Question” process continued, I learned that when I ask Brave Questions and just listen to my partner’s answers, the other person feels honored and special. I learned that the other person wants to keep on building the relationship. That became evident when my grandmother opened the next round of discussion.

A few months after our journey in the car, I was helping my grandmother with an auction. She was selling some of her household goods and moving to a smaller apartment. At the end of the day we talked about the items she sold and the prices she received. Then she said, “Alan, do you remember asking me all those questions in the car last year?” I said, “Yes.” “Well,” she said, “I didn’t tell you everything. May I tell you more?” I replied, “Of course.”

Grandma said, “When I got pregnant, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I had never had a date in my entire life. I stayed home and helped Ma and Pa with the chores on the farm. I milked the cows and churned the butter. But when I turned 16, there was a community dance. Pa said I could go.”

She continued, “It was my first dance. I was so exited. One man asked me to dance, and then another and another. It was wonderful. One man asked if I’d like a ride home. I told him that would be nice.”

As she shared the rest of her story, she talked about being raped on the way home. She tried to push the man away, to get him off her, but she couldn’t do it. She said she had no recourse, because in those days, “You just didn’t say anything.” If such things happened, women were to blame. So no one would have believed her anyway.

I was surprised and saddened. She had been carrying her secret burden for 70 years. But our Brave Questions were building a trust and safety that allowed her to open up.

Before I asked “Brave Questions” and played “20 Questions” with Grandma, we had a somewhat strained relationship. She had a difficult, mean streak about her. She had even been abusive. I didn’t know where her negative traits came from. I didn’t know her background. I just knew she wasn’t always the easiest person to be around.

Then something else started to happen. Through the questions I would ask, through the listening I would give her, Grandma began to change. She softened up and warmed up. She revealed a great sense of humor and started to dream about the future. By the time she was 87, she was saying, “I’d love to go to Norway, to visit my relatives there. But I’m so old. I’ve waited so long. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.”

So I took another risk. I told her if she wanted to go to Norway I would take her. She accepted my invitation instantly, and we went to Norway shortly after her 88th birthday.

While we were in Norway, we visited her cousins and camped in the mountains. Grandma was so happy, so enthused, that she was able to walk without the use of her cane and the wheelchair we brought. She didn’t even want to take naps or go to bed at night because she didn’t want to miss anything.

Her enthusiasm, her positive nature never diminished after that. In fact, she kept saying she wanted to go back to Norway when she was 95. My Dad and stepmother kept telling me, “You can’t do it. She’s 95. She’s so old she may die over there.” I loved Grandma’s response. She simply said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Now that would be your problem.”

Academic and Business Tests

At the same time I was having great success with the “Brave Question-20 Question” technique in my own personal life, I was teaching it to my students. I taught them to ask their mother or father some Brave Questions when they were driving in the car together. Instead of their normal talk about dorm food, television, the college football team, and a paper they had to write, I asked them to ask some Brave Questions.

My university students came back with amazing reports. Some people reported having the best conversations they had ever had with their parents. Rather than talk on the surface about sports and activities, they learned about their parents’ feelings, beliefs, fears, and dreams. It was a breakthrough in their relationships.

In a similar fashion, I encouraged the participants in my business and professional seminars to ask Brave Questions. If they were traveling to a conference with a colleague or meeting with coworkers, I suggested that they ask a few Brave Questions of one another. I pushed them to go beyond the normal topics of quarterly reports and who wore what at the office.

Business people reported back to me. They told me how they achieved more understanding in a few minutes than they had achieved in several months back on the job. Instead of seeing one another as difficult people they wanted to avoid, they began to see each other as team members who needed support and understanding.

Casey Cropp from Fort Collins, Colorado wrote, “I am a high school band director and have been using your ‘BRAVE QUESTIONS’ book to interact with my classes. All I can say is ‘Thanks.’ You’ve given me the tool I’ve been looking for in 26 years of teaching, a tool that helps me approach my students in new and more effective ways.”

“Let me give you one example,” Casey writes. “This past fall I was directing the orchestra for our school musical. One afternoon I had the opportunity to spend some time with the orchestra members, getting to know each other using several of your questions. We spent about an hour and a half sharing and bonding as a group, learning details about each other. I was given information about individuals that helped me to understand their needs and allowed me to work closer with them in the preparation of their music. Our trust level of each other went way up, and we became a team. The performances in October were astounding and I could not have been prouder of their growth through this time together.”

Deb Olswold of the Mayo Clinic gave another example. She said, “I have always been a very shy person, always in the background of the workplace, family and personal life. Not any more! I was asked to interview for a high ranking Administrative Assistant position just before I bought your ‘BRAVE QUESTIONS’ book. I read the book and wrote a few of the questions on a small piece of paper, such as ‘Where do they want to be in one to two years,’ ‘who are they looking for,’ and ‘what do they expect from me?’ I sat with confidence through the interview. When it was time for me to ask any questions, I simply asked two of your Brave Questions. Within the hour I had received a call from the HR department offering me the position. Yes, I accepted it and have thanked you daily in my prayers. Your book on ‘BRAVE QUESTIONS’ helped me get the best job I have ever had.”

But there’s more. Deb went on to say, “I love the way your Brave Question technique has affected the rest of my life and career. I can finally ask questions with confidence and move into a meeting with ease. The ‘shy secretary’ fades away and the new confidence emerges. I always knew I could be a speaker, but I didn’t realize I would love it so much. The ‘BRAVE QUESTIONS’ book gave me confidence beyond what I thought possible for myself. Do I have butterflies? You bet I do, but can I do it!”

In letter after letter, e-mails, and phone calls, the feedback was the same. Brave questions work.

After reading about the Brave Question technique, Dr. Gib Whiteman, former Dean of the Graduate School at the University of New Haven and Lieutenant Colonel in the U. S. Air Force, decided to give it a try. He wrote: “Yesterday, as my wife, Jeannie, and I were in the oncologist’s office at the hospital for our routine cancer follow-ups (both of us), and right before the nurse was to draw blood and check on my white cell count, I said, ‘You’re rather new here, aren’t you? I haven’t seen you here before.’

She replied, “Yep. I’ve been here about four months and I love it here. My name is Sarah.”

I then said, “Sarah, you’ll be seeing us every six months for the rest of our lives — if you stay here that long. We’d like to know more about you. Tell us about your background, would you?”

Sarah was startled. “What would you like to know?” I responded, “Well, where did you go to school for your nurse’s training? And, what was your favorite subject in school? Let’s start with that, since you’re a busy person and no doubt have other patients to attend.”

Well, Sarah was pleasantly taken aback. “I’ve been here four months, and no one has ever asked me where I attended nurse’s training! That’s wonderful.” She then went on to spend about a minute telling me of her favorite subject,
and why she enjoyed learning about it. Then, without hesitation, she said, “Now, Gib — tell ME where YOU went to school. What was YOUR favorite subject? And why? OK? But, you’re right — I do have to get to the patient in
the next room quite soon.”

So, I reeled off my four colleges — my favorite subject — and why — all in less than a minute. Sarah and I smiled at each other. And it didn’t hurt a bit when she drew my blood!

Then, Sarah approached my wife, went over her chart prior to the doctor entering the room, and she said to Jeannie, “This is REALLY interesting. Wow! What a way to start a Monday morning! Mrs. Whiteman, tell me something about yourself.” So, my wife gave her a 45-second “overview.” Sarah left the room with a nice “So long for now” . . . and again, “This is SOMETHING. Wow! Five minutes — the blood is drawn, and three people have come to REALLY know each other. Wow!”

Dr. Whiteman finished his letter by saying, “All we have to do is to open those lines of communication. It not only makes the other person feel good about himself, but it paves the way for great relationships.”

The Results

I’m talking about Brave Questions because I know they will also work for you. Brave Questions dramatically improved the relationship with my Grandma, and it has dramatically improved all of my relationships since then. If you apply the same technique to your relationships on and off the job, you’ll also see dramatic improvements in communication.

This book will show you how to do it, step by step. So now it’s your turn.