A professor of mine, Joel Wixson, said in class “…it’s not about conflict resolution, it’s about difference recognition.” When it comes to relating and understanding others, I have come across one question to get to the heart of a matter:

“What do you mean by that?”

Wixson talks about how this question can engage others through understanding their experiences both in his practice and everyday life.  When asking this question, one can learn what someone is feeling and experiencing in the most open way possible.  When this question comes from a place of curiosity (meaning genuinely wanting to know the answer to a question), it opens doors to conversation and relationship that may have not existed before. However, the moment the question is asked with an agenda, ulterior motive, or belief the listener knows more, it will unfortunately fall short or be received negatively.

Prior to using this question, I believe it is easy to generalize or make an assumption about someone’s outlook on life when that someone states their political preference, religious belief, opinion, or otherwise. So rather than say to one’s self, “I know what that means” ask that person to talk more about a word or idea that doesn’t make sense to you. When I have done such, it appears to allows that person to share more openly. In turn, this line of questioning can break down barriers caused by generalizations and assumptions that could otherwise alienate or segregate the speaker due to a misconception.

You might wonder from what framework this question came to me. This question comes from (or at least became more clear to me) from the stance of narrative therapy. “Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that seeks to help people identify their values and the skills and knowledge they have to live these values, so they can effectively confront whatever problems they face.” Although much more complex than this definition alone, I use this information as a platform to engage this article.

Imagine if you, the listener, can help someone identify a speaker’s values, skills and knowledge within them. Although teaching and developing insight is important, narrative therapy comes from a place of believing that the person who is speaking has information within them that needs to be illuminated or revealed with a proverbial flashlight. Thus, rather than creating something from nothing, narrative therapy sheds light into territories of experience and shows something that was in the person’s experience the entire time.

The point of asking what someone means by what they say is that in question asking, the listener helps the speaker clarify what they believe in and value. Upon the recognition of one’s beliefs or values, the insight can illuminate new information about the person which can benefit both the speaker and the listener. How powerful is that? The listener has no magical power but rather is simply present in the conversation witnessing truth being revealed.

So when in a situation where something isn’t clear, don’t brush it off, generalize or move on. Consider probing a little deeper and ask out loud, “what do you mean by that?”




Photo Credit: Cole Hutson

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