Have The Courage To Ask Brave Questions – And Really Listen

Ask and you shall 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, “You probably don’t 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 put you down. 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 had come 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, 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.

Jean shared her experience after hearing me speak at her financial company. She wrote to tell me about the impact of my seminar. In particular, she said the story of my grandmother and the brave questions stuck with her, and “I told it to my husband a few weeks later, when he was faced with a trip to Oklahoma to make a final visit to his dying mother. She was hospitalized with terminal cancer.”

She said, “Dennis had not been on great terms with her since he’d left home at age fifteen. His real dad had died when he was two, and his mother had remarried when he was about eight. It became the classic story where Dennis suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the stepfather while his mother did not protect him.”

She continued, “He didn’t know what he would say to his mother on his last and final visit. So I encouraged him to try the brave question technique. He and his older sister were with his mom when he asked, ‘When were you the happiest?’ She told them it was after their father had died and the three of them lived in a little house in Bloomington. She shared her memories. And from Dennis’ description, it sounded like a beautiful moment for all of them.”

But best of all, Jean finished her letter by saying, “After he returned, he said it was a wonderful visit. He reconciled with his mother.”

In a similar fashion, I encouraged the participants in my business seminars to ask brave questions. If they were traveling to a conference with a colleague, 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.

Tom was one such example. Tom attended my seminar for a pharmaceutical company. Some time later, he sent me the following email: “You really never know what is going on in the lives of your customers or coworkers. Your brave question technique taught me that. As a manager of twenty-five employees, I decided to try it. I shared some misfortune I was having and asked my employees some brave questions about their situations.”

Tom said he started by telling his staff: “I have a two-year old son with a terminal illness which has no known cure. The fatality rate is 50% per year after diagnosis. So he is not expected to make it out of his early childhood years. A few weeks ago my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. And it has taken me six months to tell you all this.”

He said: “I then asked a few brave questions, and I learned some unbelievable things. I learned one employee has a 42-year old husband that needs bypass heart surgery. They have a 5-year old son. One employee has a father she cares for at her home that can not eat or care for himself. She leaves work and cares for him at night. One employee’s mother has congestive heart failure, and they are investigating her options. One employee has an overactive thyroid that required surgery. She came out successfully but was told she may lose her speech. One employee’s sister has breast cancer and requires a mastectomy. Another employee’s sister has a bad heart valve and requires surgery to correct it.”

“As a manager, the lessons I have learned over the last year from this have changed me forever. We all have lives away from work. I’ve learned that employee performance issues may go much deeper than what I see on the surface. I’ve got to take time to develop relationships with my employees so I can bring out their best as well as be there to help them when needed.”

In letter after letter, emails, and phone calls, the feedback was the same. Brave questions work.

Action:  I’m sharing my discovery with you because I know brave questions 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. Please give it a try.

I would suggest you get a copy of my book, Brave Questions: How To Build Stronger Relationships By Asking All The Right Questions. I’ll give you a lot more detail on how to apply the process to your personal and professional relationships. And I’ll give you 20 sets of 20 questions that you can use to kick the process into high gear.