Supporting others by simply listening and asking questions

Hello Friends,

I was fortunate enough to experience a rather profound professional development workshop last week. Parker Palmer is an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues related to education, community, and leadership. He is also the founder of The Center for Courage and Renewal whose mission is to create a more just, compassionate and healthy world by nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it.

I spent three days with educational leaders from across the country reflecting on our personal and professional missions and how they intersect. I am so proud of who we are as a school community and how we show up with integrity and passion.

One of the cornerstones around the retreat was a practice called the Clearness Committee. The Clearness Committee is a democratic approach to problem solving that originates from the Quaker tradition. An individual (the focus person) states a dilemma they are wrestling with and then committee members ask open and honest questions for 90 minutes to help bring forth the inner teacher within the focus person. No one gives advice. No one shares what they would do or explains a similar problem they are dealing with. They simply listen and ask questions that encourage the focus person to think deeply about their own struggle. Through this process an inner teacher emerges.

I have been thinking about how to translate this beautiful process into my professional and personal life. For the time being, it reminds me that when interacting with children, questions are often more informative than statements. Bringing out their inner teacher through asking questions and simply listening shows us the bright promise that lives within them.

I’ll leave you with an essay from Parker Palmer on the lessons we can learn from listening to winter. Enjoy and I’ll see you on Monday.


The little deaths of autumn are mild precursors to the rigor mortis of winter. The southern humorist Roy Blount has opined that in the Upper Midwest, where I live, what we get in winter is not weather but divine retribution. He believes that someone here once did something very, very bad, and we are still paying the price for his or her transgression!

Winter here is a demanding season – and not everyone appreciates the discipline. It is a season when death’s victory can seem supreme: few creatures stir, plants do not visibly grow, and nature feels like our enemy. And yet the rigors of winter, like the diminishments of autumn, are accompanied by amazing gifts. One gift is beauty, different from that of autumn but perhaps more beautiful still. I am not sure that any sight or sound on earth is as exquisite as the hushed descent of a sky full of snow. Another gift is the reminder that times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things. Despite all appearances, of course, nature is not dead in winter – it has gone underground to renew itself and prepare for spring. Winter is a time when we are admonished, and even inclined, to do the same for ourselves.

But, for me, winter has an even greater gift to give. It comes when the sky is clear, the sun brilliant, the trees bare, and the first snow yet to come. It is the gift of utter clarity. In winter, one can walk into woods that had been opaque with summer growth only a few months earlier and see the trees clearly, singly and together, and see the ground that they are rooted in.

A few months ago, my father died. He was more than a good man, and these months have been a long, hard winter for me. But in the midst of the ice and loss, I have found a certain clarity that I lacked when he was alive. I see now what was concealed when the greenness of his love surrounded me – how I counted on him to help me cushion life’s harsher blows. He cannot do that for me now, and at first I thought,“I must do it for myself.” But as time has gone on,have seen something deeper still: it never was my father absorbing those blows but a larger and deeper grace that he taught me to rely on. When my father was alive, I confused the teaching with the teacher. Now my teacher is gone, but the grace is still there, and my clarity about that fact has allowed his teaching to take deeper root in me.

Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a In the Upper Midwest, newcomers often receive a classic piece of wintertime advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Here, people spend good money on warm clothing so they can get outdoors and avoid the “cabin fever” that comes from huddling fearfully by the fire during the long frozen months. If you live here long, you learn that a daily walk into the winter world will fortify the spirit by taking you boldly to the very heart of the season you fear.

Our inward winters take many forms – failure, betrayal, depression, death. But every one of them, in my experience, yields to the same advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them – protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline or spiritual guidance – we can learn what they have to teach us. Then, we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all.

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