The Art of Asking

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.” Lou Holtz

This morning, as I was walking the dogs out to the end of the driveway to collect the papers, a young fellow on his way to high school slowed, rolled down his window, and said, “You have a couple of great Irish Wolfhounds!” I thanked him and mentioned they are Labradoodles. As he pulled away, I thought back to my own teen years and remembered clearly how important it was to me at that time to sound learned.

This isn’t to condemn the young guy for stepping out and making a statement. In fact, I find many young people are reticent to talk to people they don’t know, so kudos to him for acting neighborly and communicating! Nor was he completely off the mark, we have had many people think that they were either Irish or Russian wolfhounds; being first generation Labradoodles, they do not have curly fur like the later generations. Being an educated guess, I definitely would not put him into the category of the Abraham Lincoln quote I used in an earlier blog, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

I also do not know for certain that this teen was doing what I did back when I was his age, that is my own bias, but I do see it in many teens, especially boys. And although many times it indicates low self-esteem when we present ourselves as an authority, as was the case in my life before my 50s, I have no idea that this was the case this morning. However it does point to something that I have learned and could benefit many people.

As I have also mentioned in past blogs, our perceptions in life our totally dependent upon our experiences. We see, hear, think, and expect what we have already experienced. As we have already learned much by the time we are teens (but not near as much as we think at that age!), it is natural to delineate the vast amount of information that we are receiving through our senses, pigeonholing that information into easier to understand categories. Even when faced with something totally new, our brains are constantly searching to find like patterns from the past.

Unfortunately, this can result into what is called a closed system, categorizing new experience that we have into an old familiar group, and then shutting out the possibility of there being a different explanation for that experience. An open system, while it might initially categorize a new experience like one from the past, is open to the possibility that that categorization is incorrect and seeks clarification. Too many of us fall into the former closed system.

That is because, whether real or perceived, the older portion of our brain is constantly searching for threats. This closed system helps us to survive, let’s a look at an easy example. If we lived in Africa and had seen a female lion attack another human, and then we happen to chance meeting a jaguar, the older portion of our brain does not want the newer, thinking and analyzing brain to wonder, “gosh, I wonder if this new animal that looks like that lioness, really is a kinder, gentler kind of cat? Our limbic brain quickly categorizes the jaguar as being sufficiently like the lioness, despite the differ color, as a threat to our safety, energizing us to flee.

The key to learning as we get older, is to revert back to our early developmental ages and question everything. Utilize the positive aspects of a closed system, but recognize that it may be closed. Treat every experience as if it were new; allow the limbic brain to do its work of comparing and categorizing, but then question the process. Had the young guy this morning done this, he might have stated and then questioned, “You have a couple of great looking dogs; they look like Irish Wolfhounds, are they?”

This inquiry is fairly benign as it dealt with my dogs, and did not reflect specifically on me. What if, however, someone makes a statement about you that you categorize as hurtful when in the other person’s mind they are actually paying you a compliment? We all have had the thought, “what did he mean by that?” Having a closed system keeps us from enjoying the differences in people. I have a friend that I met in a spiritual setting that, had I not met him there, was so different from me that I quite possibly would have dismissed him as a flake. Not allowing myself to be a closed system, I got to know this person, and we had many enjoyable experiences over the years.

This lets us draw on our experience, while still keeping our thought system open in order to continue learning. Keeping in mind that when we apply our categorizations to others without asking questions, we do not allow ourselves to really know the other person. As I have stated before, we can use “I” statements and questions to inquire without putting our interpretation on the other; then, keeping an open mind (system) and really listening without judgment, we will enjoy a more complete understanding of the other person.

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