Kendall Ruth worked in awkwardly close spaces with Urologists. Here’s what he learned about knowledge.
We are a culture obsessed with answers. Bumper stickers abound with calls to “Question Everything,”and yet we are more comfortable with knowing the answers. Asking questions can often look like an attack or expose our fear, but there are questions that reveal more of what we know than the correct answers ever will communicate.
We each long to know what is right, be right and hope we are on the right side. Knowing the answer is something I was taught to strive after since the first day in elementary school when teachers praised us before the class at the drop of a one word answer. Our media perpetuates this problem. Given any event – usually tragic – the remainder of a broadcast is an attempt to find the answers and who to blame. We are duped into believing that knowing the correct answer gives a sense of power when in fact it limits our ability to grow, ultimately making us powerless.
A few years ago, I worked as surgical technician/specialist. My job required me to sit next to surgeons during an operation and assist in a few different sensitive procedures of which I was the “expert.” The operating room has a very distinct hierarchy of authority. It is generally assumed that the Surgeon is the “Captain of The Ship.” This assumption is a carry over from a mid-20th century Supreme Court Ruling that decided the Surgeon was responsible for the actions of others in the room. While the legal perceptions of the OR have changed, the social perceptions of this authority structure tend to linger. The reality is that there are numerous experts in the room and it varies as to who has the real authority and power, but the Surgeon is the default.
There is a trick to navigating this micro-government. It has to do with knowing how to ask questions when you see something amiss instead of directly pointing out the mistake. Questions present the person in authority the opportunity to correct a potential mistake without looking like they made a mistake in the first place.
During a procedure, while the Surgeon was at work, part of my job was to make sure that he or she was following the correct steps, placing tools in the best location, getting the best results. But you don’t tell a surgeon straight out, “This is wrong. You need to have this over here.” It undermines their position and threatens the whole micro-government. It might be a small space but I have had to share it with some huge egos.
I learned how to ask questions that communicate the need for correction. Sometimes the question actually made me look like I didn’t know what I was doing in order to save face for the surgeon. A question might be asked, “Doc, am I seeing this placement correctly? Is it always that close to the tissue?” I asked the question to prevent a potentially failed procedure but I did it in such a way that it gave the Surgeon the role of teacher when he was often the student. He can double-check is action and correct the mistake without anyone being the wiser. And sometimes, I learn something I didn’t expect, seeing things from his perspective.
It is no small feat for men to approach a subject or even each other in such a perceived weakness. We learn early on that “real men” know what to do and know the answers. Even if you don’t know the right thing to do, at least act like it because that is part of what it means to be a man. I am convinced this approach to manhood is the reason we have so many messes to clean up –both on a global and family level.
Around the time I was working in this pseudo-surgical profession, I learned something that changed the way I understood “knowing.” Growing up Anglo-Protestant meant I was saturated in a Greek/Enlightenment mindset – how well you know something is based on the correctness of your answer to the question asked. The more time I spent in Rabbinical literature I learned that the measure of your knowing is revealed in the questions you ask. To ask a good question means you know the topic or subject enough to know what to ask and not just state opinion. A good question is the best answer I can give.
In normal conversation giving an answer can end a dialogue. Go to your local pub and most of what you hear is two people stating opinions, giving answers to questions no one asked. Can you imagine the conversation, though, if each person ended with a question? The question can reveal how much the other is listening and as such, how much they care.
How much do the questions we ask reveal how well we know the subject matter? What are the questions you need to be asking that you are afraid to ask because it might make you look stupid? What if you saw questions as an opportunity to learn – about the subject, about the person across from you, or more about yourself? What if the questions you asks actually made you look like you knew more about the answers than you expect?
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