Have you ever gone through something in your life so difficult or confusing that you’re left crying, “Why, God!?”
Have you heard your children complain after you’ve made a decision, “But, why, Mom (or Dad)?”
What about an accusatory family member: “Why did you do that!?”
“Why” has practically become a curse word in our society.
The reality, though, is that “why”, spoken with the right heart, is a powerful word. It’s true that it can be spoken with a complaining, argumentative, or interrogative motive, but spoken with curiosity and genuine love, it becomes a key to truly knowing others.
In Rising Strong, Brené Brown referenced the “dry well” mindset attributed to the work of George Loewenstein. Having a “dry well” mindset means that you fully understand your lack of knowledge. In fact, your understanding of this lack causes you to start getting curious. Relationally, this means that there’s always more to learn about someone else. It means we have to let go of assumptions and judgments and be truly curious about getting to know others.
Our brains are actually wired for story. We love to connect the dots and put all of our knowledge into a neat and tidy little box. Because of this, we tend to assume information so we can patch the holes in our stories. What this leads to is entire false narratives based on the little we do know. We hold tightly to these narratives, though, because they fit nicely into our big, giant box labeled “What I Know About Life.” And if anything were to disrupt this box, well, we may just fall apart.
These assumptions, false narratives, and tidy boxes are precisely why we’re afraid to ask a genuine “why?” When we get curious and ask questions, our judgments against others and our entire worldview could crumble. But that is the risk we have to be willing to take.
In relationships—especially family and those we are close with—we tend to make a lot of assumptions. We stop asking “why?” We stop pursuing each other’s hearts because we assume we know their motives and their feelings. The stories we’ve made up in our minds cause us to jump to conclusions and—quite frankly—assume the worst of people.
Part of loving others genuinely includes pursuing their hearts. Get curious. Ask questions:
“Tell me more!”
“Why do you like that?”
“How does that make you feel?”
What do you mean?”
These are all questions that communicate that you’re truly interested in another person. Instead of merely waiting to respond, you’re intently listening to the person’s heart. “Why?” questions are like knocking on the door to someone’s heart. When we’re able to understand someone’s heart—her feelings, her motives, her desires, her needs—we can better love that person.
On the flip side, when we observe or listen to someone and we are confused or offended, we could be tempted to instead ask ourselves “why?” Why did he say that? Why would she do that? And then we fill in the gaps with our own assumptions, which we then regard as truth.
There are also times when our false assumptions cause us to jump to conclusions within conversations. Say I have a friend who I assume works too much and she comes to me for compassion. “I’m so exhausted. Life is too much.” My assumptions could lead me to say something insensitive like, “Well, just take a day off!” or “Don’t forget to take your Sabbath day of rest!”
My friend comes to me looking for empathy and compassion and what have my statements done? They have caused her to close up. She opened up her heart to me and I completely invalidated her feelings because I think I know what’s best for her life.
So, what if, instead, I listen and try to hear what she’s saying? What if I responded, “I’m so sorry. What’s going on?” Then she opens up about how she feels scared that her husband may lose his job soon and their family of five barely has enough income to make ends meet (Ugh. That’s where my judgments of her go right out the window.). If I’m going to effectively love my friends, I need to first let go of my assumptions so that I can truly listen.
Just recently, my hsuband was in a bad mood and I immediately connected it to issues we had in the past. I assumed he was waiting for me to fix the problem and so I acted accordingly and got upset! My jumping to conclusions instead of just asking my husband what was wrong started a huge argument when, if I had just gotten curious about how my husband was really doing, I could have been there for him. I could have listened and empathized instead of assuming his bad mood was related to me.
How many times have we driven people away by the assumptions we hold? How could our relationships change if we started listening more, asking curious “why?” questions, and giving space for people to process? Can we hold back on giving advice and trying to fix people? Can we just love people right where they are?