waiting for the question

Waiting For The Question

The vital communication difference between a question and a report.

I am sitting in a coffee shop with my friend Susan. She called me distressed half an hour ago asking if we could meet. Once we are settled she leans forward, 
“I think Tom might be getting bored with me,” she says in a thick voice slumping back in her seat, “I see the way he looks at other women.” 

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Oh yes, I can tell the signs,” she says.

“How long have you been seeing him?” I ask.

“Nine glorious months,” she replies, “It was great at the beginning but now it just seems to have lost something. I don’t know what to do,” then adds, “Men are so fickle.”

“Really? Well, I suppose,” I say, “but you know the way you described what’s happening with Tom is the same way you described your marriage; great at the beginning then losing something.” 

She sits forward in her chair, chin out.  “That’s completely different,” she says, “Frank just doesn’t understand me. Tom, on the other hand, really gets me,” then slumping again, “and now he’s going to dump me.”

I have been friends with Susan for a long time and don’t like to see her in distress so I say, “Don’t you think the fact that you have a boyfriend that your husband doesn’t know about is an indication that maybe you have some relationship issues?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” she replies, “Frank doesn’t understand me; relationship issue number one, and Tom really gets me but I think he is getting bored with me so; relationship issue number two.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I say, “As far as I can see these two problems have one thing in common.”

“Go on,” she says leaning forward.

“You,” I say pointing at her, “You are the common element in these two problems. There is a pattern here Susan. Everything is great in the relationship and then suddenly something is lost”

She sits up very straight now, steely-eyed. “I don’t know where you’re getting that from. The ones who have problems here are Tom and Frank, not me. If Frank understood me I wouldn’t need Tom.”
I begin to answer but she keeps going.
“You are just saying that because I’m a woman. If I was a man, you would never say anything like that to me. I’m starting to wonder if you understand me either. It’s not like you are the king of relationships.”

Her words have the desired effect. I am speechless. Before I can regroup she starts to gather her things. 

“This was a mistake,” she says, “I’m not going to sit here and be judged. Anyway, I have to get back to work.”

And just like that, she is gone.


I am walking by a leafy canal with my friend Peter. We have just had a very leisurely lunch. As we walk along, Peter is buoyant and chatty. His phone pings, he looks at the message and blurts out, “For God’s sake! She is relentless.” He thrusts his phone back into his pocket. 

“Who is relentless?” I ask.

“Margaret, my boss,” he replies, “She never gets off my back. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. ‘Have you finished the project yet?’” he says doing what I imagine is an impression of Margaret, “’Have you billed the client yet? We need the quarterly report by the end of the week. Where are you?’” he says, making quotation marks with his finger, “Seriously, I think I’m going to have to look for somewhere else. The pressure is too much. The work environment is so toxic. I’m just not sure it’s the right career for me. I’m so sick of it. I don’t know what to do?”

“How long has this been going on?” I ask.

“About six months,” he replies.

“What changed? I thought you loved it there.”

“I did at the beginning,” he replies, “It was all going great, then my probation period ended and I had to get on with what Margaret calls real work,” he says, making quotes again with his fingers, “then the pressure started to build and the fun went out of it.”

“Wouldn’t that happen in any job?” I ask.

“Well, that’s depressing,” he replies.

“No, what I mean is every new job has a honeymoon period. And then you have to get down to it and there are consequences and pressure.”

“No, that’s not the case at all,” he responds quickly, “It’s all Margaret. She’s so unreasonable. ‘Where are you?’” he mutters under his breath, “It’s not like she is my mother!”

“I think there is something deeper going on here Peter,” I say, “It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to wonder where an employee is in the middle of a workday. It is a work day, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah it’s Wednesday,” he replies, “God, you sound just like her. Who’s side are you on anyway?”

“Side? I’m not on anyone’s side, well okay I’m on your side,” I reply, “it’s not about sides, but if this two-and-a-half hour lunch break is anything to go by it doesn’t sound like Margaret is being unreasonable to wonder where you are, and maybe she is not being unreasonable about the other things you have a problem with. It looks like there is something about being out of  probation that is freaking you out?”

“Oh for God‘s sake! That’s exactly what Margaret said. You’re all alike, you capitalists. You don’t understand the working man. You don’t understand the pressure I’m under. Thanks for nothing!” he says storming off.


Blind Spots

It is so much easier to see other people’s blind spots than our own, isn’t it? The patterns, mistakes, and unconsciousness are so obvious in other people and so hard to see for ourselves. 

There is nothing unusual about my conversations with Susan and Peter. Those kinds of conversations happen all the time. You have probably had many like them yourself. Your friend tells you their problems. You suggest solutions. Your friend gets offended and attacks you in some way. Then you get offended because your solutions were brilliant and they are an idiot for not taking them on board.

Why does this happen? Why is it so hard for other people to hear what is so obviously the problem? It is almost like they can’t hear what is being said to them.

Not Playing Ball

The difficulty comes from a fundamental misconception that communication is like a game of conversational tennis where the conversation ball is passed back and forth between us. You say what your perspective is, then I say what mine is, then you reflect back on what I have said, and so on, but this is not what is happening most of the time. 

We think we are sharing the same reality but we are not. Most communication is like two people talking on the telephone from different parts of the world arguing about the weather. The person in Australia says it is hot and sunny while the person in Ireland insists it is cold and rainy. Both are right but because they have the misconception that they are sharing the same reality they are in conflict.

In any conversation, rather than an exchange of perspectives, what often happens is the other person is giving you a report on the weather in their reality. 

The difficulty arises when we think they have lobbed the conversational ball back to us and it is now our turn to share our perspective.  What this looks like in a conversation is that the other person has asked us a question. 

In the conversations above, Peter and Susan were not asking me a question, they were giving me a report.

It might have sounded like a question because they were distressed but, “I don’t know what to do,” is not a question it is a report. They are reporting that they didn’t know what to do.

Peter and Susan were describing their individual situations and realities but that is not actually a question. That is a report, a little window into their individual realities.

The problem comes in thinking that they are asking for solutions or your perspective on what they are talking about which is not the case. 

Instead what they really want is much simpler. They want to be heard.  They want you to listen. They want you to let them know that you are hearing what they are saying. They want company. They want your presence. 

Question vs Report

I have found that knowing the difference between a report and a question allows me to respond much better in a conversation when someone is giving me a report. Now I know what is happening. I am providing company for the person. I am being a witness to their report. I listen attentively. I ask questions for clarity. I don’t offer solutions. 

I have had long conversations with people where I have said less than ten words and at the end of which the person has thanked me profusely for my help and insight. While this way of being in a conversation is not easy it does have very satisfying benefits.

The Payoff – The Question

I am not sure if this is conscious or not but I have found that not getting drawn into offering solutions when someone is giving me a report is a kind of test. It is almost like the person’s system is checking to see if I respect them enough to figure things out for themselves. 

If I pass the test, in mid-report, and out of nowhere, the curtains will open so to speak, and the person will ask a question.  Not a report, a real question. The wording will be different, for example instead of “I don’t know what to do?” it will be, “What do you think I should do?”
But more than the words, a real question has a very different feel to it. I can feel it in my system. There is an increase in intensity. There is a certain silence to the background noise, a certain slowing of time.

Whatever my response to a real question is always seems to land. I can say very controversial things that would normally cause the person to be very defensive but because this little portal has opened into their reality my response lands and it is beautiful both for me and for the person.


I am sitting in a coffee shop with my friend Susan. She called me distressed half an hour ago asking if we could meet. Once we are settled she leans forward, 

“I think Tom might be getting bored with me,” she says in a thick voice slumping back in her seat, “I see the way he looks at other women.” 

“I see,” I say.

“It was great at the beginning,” she goes on, “but now it just seems to have lost something. I don’t know what to do,” then adds, “Men are so fickle.”

I smile at her.

“Frank just doesn’t understand me. It makes me feel so lonely, but Tom, Tom really gets me,” then slumping again, “and now he’s going to dump me.”

“Right,” I say.

Tears well up, “I don’t know what I’ll do if Tom dumps me. It’s a crazy situation.”

I am very still, holding her gaze easily as I listen.

“It’s really about Frank I suppose. If Frank understood me I wouldn’t need Tom in the first place.” 

“What is it about you that Frank doesn’t understand?” I ask.

“I don’t know, he just doesn’t get me. He used to but then it sort of drifted,” she pauses looking off into the distance, “or maybe I did. I’m not sure. It’s just different now.”

“Right,” I say.

“When I’m with Tom I feel alive. It’s kind of electric and even though I hate the creeping around and the secrecy I think it has a lot to do with that electricity.”

I nod in acknowledgment of what she has said.

“Frank and I used to have that electricity at the beginning.” She takes a sip of her coffee, “I don’t know where it went.”

I nod again slowly. The air begins to crackle. The sounds in the coffee shop and in the street go quieter.

“Jesus John what a mess,” she says looking directly at me, “What do you think I should do?”


I am walking by a leafy canal with my friend Peter. We have just had a very leisurely lunch. As we walk along, Peter is buoyant and chatty. His phone pings, he looks at the message and blurts out,  “For God’s sake! She is relentless,” He thrusts his phone back into his pocket.  

“Who is relentless?” I ask.

“My boss Margaret,” he replies, “She never gets off my back. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. ‘Have you finished the project yet?’” he says doing what I imagine is an impression of Margaret, “Have you billed the client yet? We need the quarterly report by the end of the week. Where are you?” he says, making quotation marks with his finger, “Seriously, I think I’m going to have to look for somewhere else. The pressure is too much. The work environment is so toxic. I’m just not sure it’s the right career for me. I’m so sick of it. I don’t know what to do?”

“Wow,” I say, “that is a lot.” 

We walk along in silence.

“It wasn’t always like this,” he says, “I loved working there when I first started, but it’s changed in the last six months.”

“In what way?” I ask.

“Well, Margaret has turned into a dragon for one thing. When I started she was all ‘teamwork’ and ‘come to me with your problems,’ but as soon as my probationary period was over that all changed. She turned into a taskmaster.”

“Right,” I say.

 “If I’m honest it’s not just her,” he says, “don’t get me wrong she is a pain.”

“Noted,” I say smiling.

“but the responsibility is pretty intense. The consequences are serious if I screw up, and not just for me, for our clients too.”

“I see,” I say.

“To be honest it scares the pants off me. I don’t like it. I don’t like that feeling.”

“Right,” I say.

“I think Margaret knows,” he says.

I cock an eyebrow questioningly.

“She knows I am scared and hiding,” he goes on, “That’s why she is all over me.” 

“I see,” I say.

Peters’s walking has slowed to a stop. The background traffic noise reduces and everything feels like slow motion except Peter.

“I’m kind of stuck John.” he says looking at the ground, “I don’t know how to get unstuck. What do you think? What should I do?”


Getting Out of the Way

Waiting for the question is not easy. It can take time to get into the swing of it. Can we be still enough to wait? Can we truly listen? Can we resist the temptation to tune out what the person is saying because we are so excited to jump in with what we want to say next? Can we be silent when we want to burst with obvious solutions? Can we wait for the question?


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