Big questions

How do you handle big questions?

Big questions are powerful, though sometimes uncomfortable, interjections into our lives. Not the simple ‘do you want a cup of tea?’ kind, but those that ask us to stop and think. Those that may not have an immediate answer and leave us hanging…

What do we – you and I – do with these kinds of questions?

And does it matter anyway?

A lot of my work revolves around questions: ones that people expect and those they don’t! In a world that appears to value answers, we are really poor at asking and exchanging really good questions.

But I’ve also realised that we may have inbuilt responses to being faced with these bigger issues. Shaped by both the normal narrative of the world around us and our own, unique personalities.

Looking at the range of responses I encounter, these appear to fall into five clusters:

  1. Discount
  2. Push away
  3. React
  4. Ruminate
  5. Respond

Where do we gravitate? 

Discount – ‘What will be will be…’

This is the fatalist response. It doesn’t matter what I think, the answer lies elsewhere, or is determined by someone else, so why bother. I’ll accept what’s coming to me…

I wonder if the root of this response lies in our not valuing ourselves sufficiently, believing we don’t matter. Or maybe it is also a fear of taking responsibility.  Pursuing the question for ourselves means that we will have to do something with the answer.

Push away – ‘It’s too difficult’

This is not an outright rejection of engaging with the question, more procrastination. It’s a bit too hot to handle, so put it off for another day.

Sometimes though this is the best, most healthy response. There are occasions when the timing is not right and you will be ready when it is.

But we also know when we are using this as an excuse.

I wonder if this one is bound up in fear of failure, anxiety that we don’t have what it takes to answer the question. Or it touches something much deeper and we simply don’t want to go there, because we don’t know if we can handle it. It makes us feel too vulnerable

React – ‘Any answer will do’

This is the immediate, limited effort response, which tends to have a short-term focus and shallow depth of thought. Yes, it’s an answer, but of what value? Does it just get the monkey off our back?

Perhaps this is the fear of not knowing, of being in that uncomfortable place of not being clear. We crave certainty, but the world is not like that.

Maybe also we don’t want to delve too deeply and therefore a quick response puts the lid back on and feels safe. We avoid the unsettling feeling by grasping a definitive reply and metaphorically walking away.

I wonder too if this can be the knee-jerk response when the question itself explodes or undermines our worldview. We don’t want to even acknowledge that what we think or see might not be true. And we reactively push it away.

Ruminate – ‘Going over and over and over again…’

We get caught up in the question, but never reach an answer. Round and round in circles, and never moving on.

I wonder if this is fear of getting it wrong. If we don’t have the ‘right’ answer, then it feels safer to just keep asking the question. Less risky to not decide and do nothing that could be criticised.

Often rumination is associated with a tendency toward perfectionism. But who is judging?

It may also stop us from working more on the question itself. Delving below the words to expose the essence in bite-sized chunks that we can work with.

Wherever we are and whatever we are doing there is no such thing as certainty. There might be probability and the next step might be more or less clear. We can have faith, and hope is important. But banking on certainty and concrete knowing is futile and life-limiting.

Far better to step out and enjoy the journey of exploration, learning as we go.

Respond – ‘Taking time to reflect and then framing our answer’

This is the powerful way of handling important questions. Facing them head-on, ensuring we really understand what they are asking and then having the courage to step forward with our answer…

It does require facing our fears and being prepared to step into uncertain territory. We also have to surface all the stories we have bought into over the years about the question, and potential answers. Are they real? Do they still have true value for us?

And then courageously nailing our response to the proverbial mast. So that we, and where necessary others, can really see it.

This is mature, wise and liberating. It differs substantially from the shallow reaction or laboured rumination described above. And we know it!

Depending on the question and the circumstance, we might gravitate to different types of response. Where is your natural landing point?

The power of good questions

Questions can often be so much more powerful than answers. They stimulate and cause us to grow, to explore, and where we end up is certainly not where we started.

But they are also unsettling. They call into question our view of the world, our reality.

Really good questions are multi-layered. They are provocative and push us to dig deeper than we might have gone by ourselves…

My recent questions about ‘what is my voice?’ and ‘why am I here?’ have been particularly timely. They have been companions through significant recent changes in my life.

Sometimes I just wish they would go away. I’m tired of not having an adequate answer and going around the track again.

However, it’s not a closed circuit and each layer I peel away is liberating. I just need to make sure I don’t get stuck in ruminating!

So what is the question that is trying to get your attention just now? And do you know where you might get stuck?

Even being prepared to ask yourself these questions is courageous and opens a door into your future. Cherish them as a gift and let them do their work in you.

It’s worth it – for you and the world you care about.


If you found this interesting you might also enjoy these other posts on questions:

Right Answers v Good Questions – 10 May 2017

Better answers require better questions – 8 June 2017

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