A quick thought on an Easter morning – When did we stop asking questions? Or did we ever start?
I was in the doctor’s office the other day for a routine check-up. The nurse, who was going through the standard screening questions, said: “And you don’t smoke or drink alcohol.” I responded, “Well, I don’t smoke but I do drink alcohol.” And she said: “Ok, occasional alcohol,” and went on with her screening…statements?
Why didn’t she stop to say, “Can you tell me about your drinking?” What if I were a heavy drinker…maybe even worried about it? She gave me absolutely no space to share any of that with her.
Similar problem with a colleague. We have only known each other for four months, but she assumes she knows me, when in reality she knows far less than anyone who follows my blog or Twitter activity. She doesn’t know the story behind why I believe in collaborative learning. She doesn’t know that I already have really vivid experiences with self-reflection, the fluidity of identity, and the impact of institutional structures and processes on self-expression and -advocacy. Rather, she assumes that she needs to teach me these things because I am “new.” I’m not new; I’m an adult, therefore I am not new. I have a history which needs to be reconciled with her experience and our shared space. However, that can only be done if I am allowed to speak about my past experiences. I need the space to lay out my pieces if I am going to make this integration happen.
Therein lies the importance of asking questions/giving space.
The obvious response is that I should speak up and tell people what I need. However, the nuanced response is that power hierarchies are real, self-advocacy is not always clear-cut, and thoughtful approaches are needed to identify and then get precisely what you need.
In medical contexts, screening questions are meant to screen. Really there is no excuse for the nurse’s actions. The patient does not necessarily know that they have a problem (hence the need to screen), and shouldn’t be expected to feel comfortable bringing them up especially when a medical professional has already chosen the “correct” answer on their behalf. I’m still kicking myself for not providing feedback. I had a lot of reasons (none of them really good enough, I guess) for not wanting to be an ass about it, especially since I don’t actually have a drinking problem (I screen myself).
In terms of work, people higher in the organizational chart need to ask more questions, they need to give more space to the people below them on the org chart. I will learn how to insert myself even where there are no spaces for me to do so. When I figure out how to do this, I will let you know. But for now, a gentle reminder for everyone with power:
Stop. Think. Ask questions. Make space. It’s not only your job, it’s the right thing to do. It’s also really smart.