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How To Know Another Person

How To Know Another Person

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.
~Thich Nhat Hanh


or 27 years I suffered from a crippling affliction. Most parents reading this probably suffer from it, too.


For all those years, I proved unable to ask my children a single question that could possibly have elicited an answer that revealed something about them. My banal bag of interview tricks consisted of "How's school?", "Anything fun planned for the weekend?", and "Everything O.K.?"

As a result, the sum total of my understanding of my two teenagers (Cole 17, Cooper 15) was a meager sum indeed. I knew Cooper's favorite stores (Abercrombie, Hollister, and Victoria's Secret) and Cole's favorite card game, football position, and ACT score (Texas Hold ‘Em, outside linebacker, and 34), and that both were at those charming ages when parents look like necessary nuisances.

Like many good things, the answer to this problem--my near-total ignorance about my children--emerged from a crisis. One day last fall, Cooper stopped speaking to me. I persisted with what felt like the ideal mix of patience and persistence. Weeks passed.
I grieved.

And then one night, she called to say that she was ready.

We had a tearful talk (sobful would be the better word if that word existed). After several minutes, I told her that I did not know her and deeply regretted it. What mattered to her? What did she fear? I had no idea.

But in the midst of telling her that, a possible solution came to me in two images. I saw James Lipton, the host of Inside the Actor's Studio, asking Kevin Spacey "What sound do you love?" from his familiar stack of 5 x 7 index cards.

And I pictured the last page of each Vanity Fair, which is headed "Proust Questionnaire." ("Proust" refers to the French author Marcel Proust, who published his answers to a list of over 20 questions-- a favorite parlor game in 19th century France--in an 1892 article that brought worldwide attention to that popular questionnaire. Lipton borrowed his ten questions from another Frenchman, Bernard Pivot, whose televised interviews with authors attracted millions of French viewers from 1975 to 2001.) Each month, a celebrity would briefly answer the VF interviewer's twenty-some questions.

What struck me about these unusual questions were the answers. The people answering-most of them actors and actresses--revealed themselves as nakedly as I'd ever seen them. (A favorite example: Hedy Lamar was asked "How would you like to die?" The then-86 year-old actress answered, "Preferably after sex.")

So at that moment confiding to my daughter, tearful and yearning to know who she really was, I thought of those questions. I suggested that I compile some and email them to her (she lives outside Chicago, I in Minneapolis). I said I would call in a week to hear her answers and to answer the questions myself.

Somewhat like Lipton and Pivot, who were inspired by the original French questions but use none of them, I set about writing my own list of questions. These were my first ten:

1. What trait of yours do you most appreciate, and why?

2. What trait do you wish you could change?

3. What trait do you most admire in others?

4. What is your idea of a perfect day?

5. What is your biggest dream?

6. What do you most dislike?

7. What is your favorite word, and why did you choose it?

8. Do you believe in God?

9. Do you believe in heaven? If yes, how do you describe it?

10. What person or persons have inspired you, and what about them inspired you?

Two weeks later, I called her to share our answers.

Midway through her first answer, I already felt that I knew her better. (She replied, "I most like my open-mindedness. I am very accepting of all people. I wish more of my friends were, too.")
Each answer was a surprise. Her favorite word is "therefore." "It sounds very thoughtful," she explained.

While not every answer revealed something deep, each helped me understand and appreciate her more. She said that what she most dislikes are eggs, for example. "Everything about them," she added. "The smell, the texture, the color--everything."

I best remember her answer to the question about heaven. "I don't think there's a heaven per se, but there's something out there. When Grandpa Bob died, we went to spread his ashes on Lake Kaubashine. And you remember how he loved loons?"

I said I did.

"Well, when we stopped the boat and pulled out the urn, two loons paddled up to our boat--and loons don't approach people, you know?

I'd heard that.

"Well, I think that those two loons were Bob and Jeanie."

I now realize that the depth of our friendships relates directly to the questions that we ask, and that friends ask of us. A sincere question communicates, "I want to know more about you", a bonding message. And each answer helps to paint the person in full. Without asking these questions, I fall into a common trap of stereotyping. Rather than see the person, I see the person that I assume that person must be.

If you want to deepen a relationship, I recommend that you try this. Before that November night of questions and answers, I tended to see my young lady as the forensic accountant she plans to be: a lady who lives mostly in her head and not her heart. But on December 23, when she emerged from the morning dark after her long trip from Chicago, I saw more than her pretty face framed in wavy blonde hair. For the first time I saw right past it, and into my daughter's heart and soul.


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James Lipton's Ten Questions:
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
What turns you off?
What is your favorite curse word?
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Bernard Pivot's Ten Questions:
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What is your favorite drug?
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What is your favorite curse word?
Who would you like to see on a new banknote?
What profession other than your own would you not like to attempt?
If you were reincarnated as some other plant or animal, what would it be?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?