Compassion Conversation Toolkit: Ego-less Questions

Courtesy of Ales Krivec @ Unsplash

In the context of a compassionate conversation, what does this even mean? Well, if rhetorical questions function to make a point in the form of a question, whilst a socratic questions aim to expand thinking, and open-ended questions serve the purpose of co-discovering more, then ego-less questions may be understood as questions that the other person wishes to be asked so that they may speak their truth and thus be free from their suffering.

A question not asked, is a door not opened. Alternatively, you may also imagine a question as a beam of light in a pitch dark room that determines where attention goes. In that sense, your questions may either be leading the person towards the door, or deeper into the darkness, or round and round in circles. Remember, you can exit the darkness, but not the sufferer.

I was once asked how it was that I came to ask questions that bring forth tears and long-held secrets in friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike. Here’s my honest attempt to give form to what had largely been a “felt” experience. Ego-less questions is neither that which can be manufactured at will, nor commanded into existence. It is instead a combination of three qualities.

First is tenderful approach, which is my regard of every conversation as a pilgrimage of sorts, not in the hippie flower-power sense, or in the religious chanting sense, or in the transcendental spiritual sense. But with simple gratitude that another human being has chosen to spend time with me, and quiet excitement at the possibility of learning. This is regardless of whether it’s a ‘casual’ conversation with no agenda per se, or a conversation where I know that difficult / ‘suffering’ topics will be discussed.

This makes it easier to remind myself during the conversation to be humble (choose kindness over being right), curious (don’t assume that what I see is what I get, though be careful about being unnecessarily probing), and playful (there is always lightness amidst darkness, but there is a right time for it). I’ve learnt that these three attitude create a more inviting spaciousness for people to speak freely.

Second is heartful listening, because I want to be sure that I’m not hearing only what I wish to hear instead of what the speaker wishes to communicate (to learn more, click here). Third is artful reflection, because I want to be sure that I’m not mis-interpreted or mis-attributed (to learn more, click here).

Most importantly, the combined effect of tenderful approach, heartful listening and artful reflection is to leave Ego at the doorway, i.e. I aspire not to bring Ego into the conversation. For the sake of simplicity, because Ego as a topic is as vast as the universe (for an accessible starting point to learn more about the ego, check out Eckhart Tolle), Ego is that which privileges “I am …” above all other realities. Ego affords a sense of “identity” in the form of attachments to possessions, skills, qualifications, achievements etc. So naturally, Ego protects the “I am …” at all costs, because our identity is our sense of self. This however masks the fact that we’ve simply been persuaded to believe that our biographies are our identities.

On that basis, an Ego-ful question may be understood as a question that is more about me, i.e. to show how smart I am, how right I am, how caring I am, how lucky I am, how well-educated I am, how rich I am, and the list goes on.

So, if an Ego-less question is a negation of all the above, what does it sound like? For me, it begins with how it feels. I’ve always imagined a conversation as a landscape, and I am merely a visitor. It is a landscape that is a melding of both my world and the other person’s world, so there are certain features that seem familiar, but others which are completely foreign. And so I imagine heartful listening as an embodied surveying of the landscape, e.g. there’s something sparkling over there, let’s go take a look; wait, there’s a rustling in the bushes to my left, let’s check that out; wait, a dragon just flew past, let’s follow it; wait, there are people having a picnic over there, let’s join. In this landscape, I am playful, curious, ever so respectful, and without Ego.

When it comes time to ask a question, I stand still, in silence, because I see questions emerging from the earth - some hesistantly, some forcefully, some assuredly, some whimsically - and I don’t wish to disturb the emerging. Sometimes there are only a few questions, other times, plenty. But what I’m trying to spot is which question is resonating the strongest. Sometimes it’s the shiniest question, sometimes it’s the biggest question, sometimes it’s the most beautiful question, sometimes it’s the strangest question. My task is to spot the question with the strongest resonance, and unquestioningly offer it.

The point of this exercise is to make sure that the decision is made in Ego’s absence, because if Ego’s there, it may say “that’s a stupid question, no educated / polite / caring person who dare ask it” or “who do you think you are, you have no right to ask that question, it’s too sensitive” or “only a privileged entitled person like you would ask that question” etc. In other words, I’ve made the precondition of whether to ask a question about how well it makes me look, according to naturally (or ironically) my own estimation alone.

Is it always an earth shattering WOW question? I sincerely do not know. But more importantly, that’s not the point. If it was the point, I’ve once again made it about me. The less I care about it, the more likely that it is a question that the person’s been longing to be asked, so that they may speak their truth. In the absence of Ego, I am better able to sense which question among the many possibles, is the one that needs to be asked.

PS. If you are curious about how I came to compassion, click here 🌹

Executive Doctoral Candidate * 6x Entrepreneur * Nonviolent Communication Mediator * Healing & Reconciliation Facilitator * Compassion Coach *

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