“Turning Periods into Question Marks”

Turning periods into question marks can be life-saving.

Several months ago, I got a call from a dear friend, Tess, as she drove from her home outside of Chicago to a friend’s home in Michigan. She was frightened because this friend was seriously considering suicide and Tess felt unprepared to help. Since she knew of my work on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), she was hoping for some counsel in the hours it would take her to reach her destination in Michigan.

When facing a person in trouble, often, because we feel afraid and helpless, and because we live in an action-oriented culture, it is easy to fall into the trap of problem solving—and the oft used tool in that toolbox, declarative sentences. “Do this.” “Try that.” “You shouldn’t feel that way.” “Suicide is not the answer.” “So many people love you.” “You are so bright and talented.” “You will disappoint so many people.”

Most often, a person who is lonely, depressed, or even suicidal, needs a non-judgmental ear and empathy. Sentences that end in periods, especially those that can be heard as intimidating or threatening, come off as judgmental, rehearsed, obligatory, hollow…even vulgar. If the person on the receiving end doesn’t argue verbally, a voice of denial will surely begin to scream in their head. All we’ve managed to do is foment an argument…and add guilt to the already endless list of emotional hurdles the other person faces.

If, instead, we end our sentences with the little-used squiggle above a period—the infamous question mark—any response gives us an opportunity to agree rather than argue. “What do you think you might do next that might help, even in some small way?” “What feels the worst in this moment?” “If you have felt this way in the past, have you discovered things that have helped?” “What do you think the people who love you would want for you right now?” “Is there something—anything at all—that you cherish about yourself, something positive you bring to the world?” Any positive response to those or similar inquiries opens the possibility of a life-affirming conversation, and leaves feelings of guilt on the outside looking in.

After a long call recently on the Lifeline, when the caller said she felt better, I asked what about our conversation helped. “Every other time I have called, people told me things. You just asked questions. That was wonderful.”

Tess, bless her, spent several days with her friend, using the power of questions to help her choose life. Some months later, it was Tess who said “turning periods into question marks” was lifesaving.

Thank you, Tess, for your generosity, kindness, wisdom, and love. And thank you for giving us all a simple but powerful phrase we can use to change the future.

2 thoughts on ““Turning Periods into Question Marks””

  1. Hi Roger,
    I’m really glad you are writing your story about questions, it gives me another way of responding, having a conversation, in a funny kind of way, for the persons who want to help..or in my own writing. like a process of inquiry. So it’s really open ended questions, questions that don’t have right answer..like the only right answer is theirs or ours.

  2. Tony Krzyzewski

    There is a story I heard about an old priest and a young priest.

    The old priest asks the young priest to visit a parishioner who is in the hospital. He warns the young priest that this fellow is a grumpy old man that seems sour on everything. He asks that he spend a little time with him and not to just rush in and out.

    The young priest walks into the hospital room, and true to form the man complains about everything. After a while the conversation dies and the young priest just sits next to the bed and the two of them just watch out the window for a while in silence. After a while he leaves.

    The young priest returns to the rectory thinking that he had failed to make a difference, but he was met by a smiling old priest. The old priest said that he got a call from the grumpy patient. He said, “That young priest is alright. He sat with me a didn’t say much. He can come back anytime.”

    In addition to questions, sometime just a human presence communicates caring. Sometimes the worst thing is feeling alone.

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