Laying Out My Pieces

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.

Featured Image by: Glen Carrie,

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Groysberg and Slind (2012) in the HBR said:

    “The sound of one person talking is not, obviously, a conversation. The same applies to organizational conversation, in which leaders talk with employees and not just to them.”


  2. gardnercampbell says:

    Great post. It reminds me of the best work of people like Oliver Sacks, for whom the case history was paramount.

    If in the name of “productivity” we give up the time we need to create those spaces you describe, we will find ourselves very, very sorry. No time will be saved, no productivity will be gained; we will spend all our time dealing with the consequences of our shortsightedness.


  3. Thinking about this questions and space, our conversation yesterday and my reality.

    It seems to me that most of the really good (and sometimes bizarrely deep) conversations I’ve had lately have started not when I asked a question, but when I answered what would normally be a small talk question with an honest, imperfect answer. These are the answers I used to avoid giving but now figure life it too short not to.

    These answers are met with one of two reactions. Sometimes they receive a surprised discomfort, lowered eyes and a quick change of subject or excuse to leave-not much lost. Or else the the person looks at me straight in the eyes and shares a similarly interesting/ crazy/ messed up story. Honest conversations and great friendships have emerged.

    I guess what I’ve learned is that lots (most?) folks are struggling, hiding or worried about something. Exposing your own vulnerabilities and doubts doesn’t demand anything in return but maybe it acts as an invitation? Makes space for something more?

    I’m still thinking about this one, going to pay more attention to the questions I do and don’t ask and the answers I give. I’ve become more bold in answering, but maybe becoming more bold in asking would be equally rewarding. Thank you for raising the issue.


    1. Laura Gogia says:

      I think you’ve touched on the difference between making space and asking questions. Furthermore, I think in your example, you took the space and made it your own (kudos)…hence the fact at least one of your co-conversationalists was surprised by your answer. If they had truly been offering space with all the implications of offering, then they wouldn’t have been surprised. Taking space and making it your own is a different phenomenon than being offered space as a gift or contribution. Another point to be considered…my post relates examples that are situated in power hierarchies. Medical professional to a patient. Someone higher up in the org chart to someone lower in the org chart. I’m suggesting that people who – by definition of their position – are in control of the conversation need to make a conscientious effort to make space and ask questions of the other people in the room.

      Like you, I’ve enjoyed our conversation. It’s helped me clarify a lot of things. Thank you 🙂


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