hidden meaning…

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I have been reflecting on the nature of a question.

Consider this.

You’re in a conversation with another human being. They are telling you something about their experience; you respond with a question.  It’s what we do in conversations.

The question forms, it gets uttered. It’s out there shaping the conversation.

But where does that question come from?  What prompts the thought?  What forms the thinking?  What shapes the words? And what is the question’s true intent?

We might think our questions are for the recipient; the person we throw them at.  Convinced we are adding value, we toss the question in front of their thinking stream, interrupting whatever is processing inside their head or body.  The question itself instantly demands attention.  Diverting the thinker to attend to it like a noisy impatient child.  The recipient ponders, then responds. In that moment, we, the questioner, feel good.  Our question has proved useful.  The recipient has shown their gratitude by affording our question due attention.  Clearly they have benefited.  Our question has undoubtedly furthered their thinking, developed their awareness, offered them an alternative or made it clear what the way forward is.  The question has elicited an answer and we all want answers … don’t we?

We have helped. We feel good.

But is that true?  True that we have helped?
We, the questioner, now know more, that is true.  But does the responder?

Maybe our question’s true intent was simply that? To help us to understand? To help us make meaning from the stream of consciousness our fellow human being was imparting. Maybe that is where it came from?  Its purpose to fill in our knowledge gaps so that we might better comprehend this complex, story-ridden, alien world of another human being? A veiled attempt to make sense of their situation. An unconsciously selfish intent?

And if our question’s intent is indeed to further our understanding, does that shape and inform further questions? Are we ultimately steering the conversation towards our greater understanding of the other person’s world?  Does each question take the other person further from their own path and move them on to our thinking path? Are we building a reality for them? Is our question and those that follow merely wresting control?  Shaping the collective thinking to serve our meaning making needs? Is that the intent hiding in our question?

But is that true? Is it really just about us? A selfish need to understand and relate this person’s story to our world of meaning and sense making?

Well, every question does have a presupposition embedded within it. Every question.

Our question may have suggested we were listening.  Maybe that was its intent?  Maybe the question attempts to impart a sense of caring, an ability to attend to our fellow human being’s world, their toils and struggles.  Maybe the question is grown from a desire to connect? A desire to help?  A desire to rescue even?

But is that true? Are we really that selfless?

Our question may outwardly seem to expand the speaker’s awareness, or offer them a new perspective or a fresh choice?  But where does that come from? Is it really something we are asking ourselves, inside? A question that has meaning for us in the same situation, so given its significance for us and our thinking, we offer it up.  Because if it’s of use to us, it must surely be of use to them…?

But is that true? Maybe, or maybe that too is in service of our own needs? Maybe its true purpose was to help us compare – compare ourselves to the other person? To judge. To compare how we might respond in that situation, or compare our ability to think about it with their ability?  Maybe its intent is to make a judgement, good or bad?  A judgement of ourselves, or of them?

Maybe the unwittingly selfish foundation goes deeper? Maybe this question dressed as concerned listening and helping is really about affirming our own value?  Our value in this relationship, our value in society, maybe also our very value as a human being?

Is our question masquerading as a help to our responder when in truth it is about affirmation of who we are, of our very existence? In some way the question might seem to be saying “here I am”, “I am listening”, “I hear you”, “I can help”…

But is that true?  Or could it be that our question really means “notice me”, “I am of value”, “validate me by answering my question”, “honour me as a human being.”

Meanwhile, whatever our hidden intention, our speaker’s train of thought is interrupted.

So, what lies in the foundations of our questions?  What building blocks form their true shape?

Our own need to know?
Our own need to be OK?
Our inner need to compare and judge ourselves?
Our own need for validation?
Our own need for acceptance?

What if we just kept them? They are after all ‘our questions’.
What if we kept them to ourselves?

Or… what if we stopped searching for them at all?
What if we just listened?  Without intent?

pop my candy

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“Too cold to hold and got to be sold.” he called out.

It drew my attention and my gaze caught his.

“Don’t let dehydration ruin your vacation.” he grinned.

“Can I refresh you today?” he invited as I approached. “Guaranteed to cool you out without a doubt…”

This street trader’s appreciation of the value in selling not the product but the benefits, had won me over in the New Orleans heat of early afternoon. I could sense how it would feel to be refreshed and sated by one of his ice cold drinks. I duly purchased a beverage from the ice filled cool boxes at his feet.

Talking about value, contribution, benefits and outcomes seems effective. Doing so in language that engages the senses, even more so.

What might happen if we adopted this approach in organisations when we discuss people? Not, she’s top talent or he’s well qualified. But, she’ll energise you with a deep passion that washes over you like a wave of effervescent bubbles from popping candy. His courage and insight will inspire you like the view from the banks of the raging Mississippi with all its power and direction in the flush of Spring.

What if?

which three fifths do you choose?

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Having visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the second new learning which stayed with me was this…

In 1787, after independence, the three fifths clause of the United States Constitution was enacted. “Three-fifths of the number of slaves in any particular state would be added to the total number of free white persons, including bond servants, but not Indians, to the estimated number of congressmen each state would send to the House of Representatives.”

Effectively each black man or woman was worth three fifths of a white man or woman, when it came to ‘democratic’ representation. It seems shocking; indeed a few people audibly gasped when the video at the museum shared this.

How do you fraction a human being? Why three fifths? And which three fifths?

And I wonder on reflection, do we still do this today? Unconsciously? Do we value certain people more, or less? Is it just that we no longer write it down, make it law?

And do we hide parts of ourselves too? Only present to the world the part(s) we feel comfortable with? Do we show up, not as our whole self, but as the fraction we believe is acceptable to those around us, in our context, in our environment, now at this time?

If you could offer a fraction of yourself and discount the remainder, which fraction would you choose?

“oh I’m nobody…” she said


Looking to validate the time slot for our tickets to the ‘Journey behind the falls’ in Niagara, we approached the ticket desk. Two ladies were busy with customers. We wandered around the large circular installation, meandering through the maze of unecesssary, queue guiding, crowd controlling barriers. We passed a couple of unmanned service points, to a lady perched on a stool, in front of a screen.

“Hello.” she greeted us. Lovely big smile. We responded likewise, and made our request.

“Oh I’m nothing.” she said. “You need to wait, or go upstairs.” She gesticulated, with a noncholent wave of a hand.

I enquired as to her dismissal of herself, of her role, of her existence, of her identity, of her right to be. Not in those words, although it struck me she was doing just that.

Turns out she was ‘guest services’. There to help with anything general rather than provide a specific service.

That seemed like something. More than something. To me at least.

We smiled and departed.

What a shame she didn’t value herself. We should all value ourselves.

losing things

losing things

Do you lose things?

I do.  Keys are a favourite. Today I lost my phone – only for half an hour.

Sometimes I lose things that aren’t actually things.  Like losing my way, or losing interest. I seem to lose time too.  I look up and realise I seem to have lost several hours.

How do you lose something that doesn’t physically exist?

Ultimately though, these are all recoverable, or when push comes to shove, they don’t really matter. They can be replaced, recovered or simply forgotten about.  We move on.

Don’t ever lose your curiosity though. Or your sense of fun. Or your compassion for yourself. Or your sense of who you are. Or your sense of belonging. Or your sense of value, or place in this world. Or your humanity. Don’t lose yourself.

These are harder to recover from. Hold them close. Guard them devotedly.

what is the value of a thought?

deep in thought

What purpose does a thought serve?

They seem sometimes merely to generate new thoughts, which in turn father more and yet more.

They seem to occupy us. Keep us busy. Deflect us from our experience in the moment.

They seem to be our ticket to our claim of species superiority. World domination. Although recent world events and the erosion of the planet’s resources might argue otherwise.

They seem to be the root of judgement.  Judgement of others. Judgement of ourselves.

They seem to be the foundation of our communication. The exchange of ideas and knowledge with fellow thinkers. Yet two things seem to be true here; firstly, whilst we exchange thoughts we are often distracted from, and dismissive of, our own feelings. The thoughts, and their exchange with other thoughts from other thinkers, perhaps a distraction from an unspoken truth about how we feel. Secondly, our thinking stops us listening.  We are so busy marshalling our own thoughts we don’t really hear the thoughts of those we are supposedly communicating with.

Yet, thoughts seem to be the catalyst for our learning. Generating new awareness, new understanding, new skills.

So I wonder… is the value of a thought always clear?
Is the value worth the cost?
It seems to me… sometimes, but equally sometimes not.

image by: Lisette Wennström