What Question Would Work? (Issue 1084)

In which we are challenged to think of a respectful yet strong enough question that could prompt new thinking.

I have a friend. We met a long time ago. I don’t see him often. We stay in touch a few times a year. He lives with his dog in a shingled Victorian-style farm house near a small northern New England village, a recluse now approaching 80 years old.

He’s a classic old-style New England Yankee in the best ways – shrewd, thrifty, self-reliant – and the worst – private to a fault, stubborn, a bit fatalistic, and proud of his “old ways”. Years after the rest of us purchased answering machines, he got one. Still has it hooked up. Still has the same message on it. A few years ago, he finally bought a mobile phone…doesn’t like to use it. Doesn’t text on it. Many times, he doesn’t carry it or answer it.

On my last visit to him at his house, I felt worried. The rhododendrons around the house were overgrown. The lower branches on the swishing pine trees near the house had overgrown the path to the porch and kitchen door, partially obstructing it. The roof of the enclosed porch was bowed in the middle. The porch, itself, was filled almost to chest height with partially packed cardboard boxes, old furniture, tools, and shoes.

To look at the kitchen, I guessed he wasn’t eating well and maybe not regularly.  The kitchen table and chairs were covered with stacks of mail, books, and magazines. In other downstairs rooms, couches and chairs were piled high with boxes, clothing, blankets, and baskets.

He was creaky, limping noticeably and favoring his right leg, and his blood pressure was through the roof.

The house is filling up and falling down around him. He won’t share but slivers when asked about his means and future plans. “I’ll take care of it,” he says. Or, “I’m all set.” He won’t consider assisted living and he won’t leave the house. “Where would I go?”, he replies, ending the conversation.

Chances are good that he’ll one day have a stroke or a heart attack that won’t kill him. And the question then would be, “What would happen to him?” Who would help?

While he sees a few people in town to wave and say “hello” when he’s out with Heidi doing his errands, he’s not close with neighbors. He doesn’t belong to a church. His few friends, like me, live hours away and can’t take him in… even if he were willing. He has no family left.

I’ve been thinking about him recently and, since he has brushed away well-meant suggestions (see above: “I’m all set”), I think my last resort, and a slim chance at best, is a respectful question that prompts him to think a different way or share his thoughts.

The question is: How to phrase such a question?

I can see two choices.

The first choice would be a “what if…?” or “what will happen when…?” question, maybe including Heidi. Something like, “I’ve been thinking you, wondering, ‘What if you have a stroke? What would you like to see happen with you? What would you like to see happen with Heidi?’”

While that phrasing gets right to the point, it’s abrupt and intrusive – I’d be using health information begrudgingly shared with me in what he would consider a weak moment.

A second choice might be something like, “How will you know when it might be time to get some additional resources to help with Heidi and the house and look in on you from time to time?”

That’s all I’ve got so far. If you have other ideas, I’d welcome your thoughts.

P.S. To give you a different sense of the character in this play, read “I Will Not Leave | Romaine Tenney Loved His Vermont Farm To Death.” Almost exactly ten years ago, Yankee Magazine published a story, about a late middle-aged Vermont farmer displaced by construction of Interstate Highway 91 in the early 1960s. It’s a story you won’t forget.

Nick Miller and Clarity train banks and bankers to attract and develop deeper relationships with small businesses. Many more Sales Thoughts like this and a host of other articles and resources at https://clarityadvantage.com/knowledge-center/ .

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