“Every Wall Has An Opening” – A reflection on questions, context, and building intimacy

For years I’ve been quietly practicing the art of getting to know people, often quite quickly. To put it in different words, I learned how to build intimacy.

The road there has been a combination of a few things. Some of it is my background in acting, some of it is my love for journalism and storytelling, and a bit of it is just generally learning to ask questions that help people open up about what they like to do and where their passions lie.

It’s a more difficult skill than most people think, and I’d like to share both a little bit about how I approach it, and also some specific examples. One small disclaimer: this is something I’ve learned to do over time, and it’s not a recipe to manipulate people or get things that you want, although those are both possibilities. The risk, if you do go that route, is closing people off and making the walls higher and more solid, and of course along with that building a reputation for being selfish and advancing your own needs and wants completely at the cost of other people. I think that’s probably reason enough in itself to avoid using this framework in a negative way, but it’s important to remember that there is value and usefulness in learning from other people, and also sharing things with them.

I was home-schooled until high school and only occasionally had access to TV. As a result, a lot of my early experiences were, to be honest, mostly in books. And while my parents made sure I got some social interaction, high school and college were kind of a shocking experience for me. I had to learn to navigate environments that were completely new (there are some pros and cons to that, as you might imagine).

As I was starting high school, I got a pretty quick education in social ecosystems. I remember saying some kind of wrong or maybe weird thing to the captain of the freshman football team in the locker room during PE, and next thing I knew I was pushed up against a locker very much outweighed by 3 football players. They did the typical strongman thing which was made me say out loud how they were going to beat me up. And in that moment, I looked up and said “yes, definitely you are going to kick my ass, but one of you will get a broken nose.” I’m not quite sure what possessed me to say such a thing, other than that I figured there was no use in pretending the first week of school wasn’t going to be awful. Instead of beating me up, there was a moment of complete surprise on all three of their faces, followed by the captain of the team laughing and telling me I had a lot of guts for such a little dude. Although none of us would have put it this way at the time, in effect I undermined the social system that they lived in and it put all of us at ease. I actually became friends with the captain of the football team and he gave me a bit of protection / education on the social stuff while I helped him with his homework for our government class. I know it sounds a little bit like a novel for middle schoolers, but that’s how it happened.

After a year in public school, I was scholarshipped in full to a private school, Albuquerque Academy. I remember learning a different lesson in the first week there, when I was sitting in the sophomore student lounge and a wiry, kind of nerdy guy in my class said something something insulting to me and in about two seconds I had him up from his seat and was gripping his shirt and asking what his problem was. He kind of just stood there, so that stopped me for a second, and I remember this one girl gave me a horrified look and said, pretty disdainfully, “we don’t do that here.” Being a good sport I let go of his shirt, apologized, and as it turns out he was a cross country runner as I was and we didn’t exactly get along perfect but we were fairly good friends in a year or two.

So I quickly learned something in both places, which is that you can’t approach every situation the same, and what works in one might not work in another. There’s always context at play, your own history & understanding of how things work, the same for anyone you interact with, and then there’s some sort of editorial “these are the facts of this environment” type thing that neither of you are going to necessarily control or know about.

I did learn to navigate both of those kinds of situations, and even now I’m fairly comfortable switching gears. I like to refer to it as being as comfortable on a street corner as in a boardroom.

Fast forward a bit, and after college + a couple of years in Wisconsin teaching, coaching, doing a bit of manual labor, and managing a bar, I moved back to Albuquerque. At the time I got a job working for a media company that distributed press releases, doing some pretty standard customer service, answering emails & phone calls, and working on some team projects. There still really isn’t a better way to learn about how things actually work in an organization than to do customer service. It gives you a healthy respect for the importance of limiting bureaucracy, and getting things done. I spent a couple of years there, sometimes getting yelled at, but generally figuring out how to quickly understand what was happening, and what would take to fix it. I won’t bore you with a work anecdote, but let’s just say that I spent a lot of time asking myself “why would we do it that way?”

That’s one of the most useful things I’ve learned in a variety of environments, is how to ask a good question.

Asking a good question is at the heart of getting to know someone. Most people already have some skill at this, but we don’t always recognize it or apply it across all areas of our life. Many of my female friends (and some readers here) probably know a lot about this, since it’s a common, and necessary, tactic for getting a man to open up.

There’s a big difference, for example, between asking “how was your day” and “what was it like at work today?”

One of those will usually end in a one word response, the other, unless someone’s really grumpy, solicits a more detailed answer. Another example would be asking a new college student away at school “do you miss your home” vs. “what kinds of things remind you of home?”

That’s only a small slice of where asking good questions will get you. For more on that, I recommend looking into someone named Lauren Bacon. She has a great blog called “Curious for a Living” which is at www.laurenbacon.com. She’s got some interesting (and totally free) material about asking good questions and what makes for good collaboration. If you haven’t already run into it Brene Brown’s TedTalk on the power of vulnerability is also a nice complement.

More recently in the last few years I’ve started throwing shows in my house, and other low-key DIY spaces. I also co-run a gallery with two partners and collaborate on music, ‘zine readings, and other creative events. There’s definitely a different vibe to that venture, because you’re often welcoming and hosting people in a space that’s more personal, and you and they can both feel it. The rules are a little different. On the one hand it creates a more open and easier atmosphere, but if someone’s not playing fair or trying to understand the energy they are bringing into the space then you as a host have to correct the situation. I’ve dealt with overly drunk “guests,” bands that were trying to do drugs in my house, and even the occasional friend or two that needed a time out.

Asking good questions and understanding context are useful, but setting expectations and boundaries becomes really important to creating intimacy as well. When you bring people into a space that you are an owner of, literally or metaphorically, you have to let them know what goes. But you don’t want to dictate how someone experiences something, and so you have to find a way to let people know the general, flexible structure for the space or event, without telling them exactly what they have to do or say. With musicians/bands and artists, I often give them a quick tour of equipment, space, and other practical stuff, and then say “so I was thinking of X, Y and Z, curious to know, what works best for you or how do you normally setup / go about your performance?” At that point it becomes a negotiation (the friendly kind) and I’ve let them know what’s expected but that their collaboration is important.

For guests in a space, it’s a little more direct, in the sense that I normally welcome people, give them one or two expectations (maybe not even directly) and then let them figure it out. For a DIY space this is a good approach, although I’m sure there are more formal galleries, music and performance spaces, etc…. I like to think of it as setting the most flexible, lightweight structure possible and then letting people creatively do the rest. And again, asking good questions and understanding context goes a long way. You’d be surprised how quickly the walls come down, even for people you wouldn’t expect, like football players who are getting ready to beat you up.

5 thoughts on ““Every Wall Has An Opening” – A reflection on questions, context, and building intimacy”

  1. Great insights here, and it’s always a pleasure to hear your stories. I personally needed to hear these today, and it seems like you always know the right one to tell at the right time. : )

    1. Dwayne, hey! So glad to hear it was good timing. This is actually part of a talk I’m going to give in a couple of months, so I’ll have to pick your brain when I’m back in SF end of the month to get some feedback.

  2. Great article, Joe! What an interesting life you’ve led so far. I can’t imagine having been homeschooled and getting tossed into my High School. Like you said, there are pros and cons to it. I know I had my own maneuvering to do coming from a small Catholic private school to public HS. It’s interesting how quickly people do perceive one another. I was just sitting in a webinar for work that was discussing people’s asking styles and I was sharing a little about it with a coworker who I typically only interact with on budget stuff. She commented, “Let me guess, you’re the ‘do something crazy to get everyone’s attention’ person.” Well, she had me. And it surprised me from how little we interacted she knew I was willing to do just about anything to make people laugh. Interesting stuff!

    1. Hey thanks Jess – yeah sometimes I think I’ve led a pretty regular life but sometimes I think I’ve been captain of the weird brigade. It’s all relative I guess, you get used to whatever direction you go in.

      That’s an interesting point about perceptions – you’re right, too. I think the challenge with first impressions is to understand that they are simply one aspect or one piece of a sketch, and that we shouldn’t let them pass by unexamined. That happens a lot when we make a quick categorization (religion, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc…) that we never come back to.

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