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The Cruelest Question of All

By Jim Lukaszewski
Also known as “America’s Crisis Guru,” Jim Lukaszewski is an experienced author, speaker and expert on crisis communications and public affairs. This piece was originally published in Jim’s newsletter, “Jim’s Wisdom,” in February 2023. 

This question is, “Do you have any questions?

How many times have you struggled to understand an important but complicated subject, from a person smarter than you, a doctor, a car mechanic, a teacher, a salesman, your teenager or the cellphone salesperson? They barely get started helping you, then they stop and ask the cruelest question.

You are drowning in confusion. You want to say, “YES!!! Dozens!” But you can’t, so you say, “No.” You are summarily and often politely abandoned. You hear the person say, as they depart, “Call me when you have questions.” Bam, they’re gone. There you are, stuck with your confusion, frustration and sometimes desperation.

This is so frustrating and disheartening. When Barbara had cancer in 2015, she had two really marvelous oncologists, one a surgeon and one a medical specialist. Together they got Barbara (and me) through this situation and a very intense year.

I believe they sincerely tried to explain everything to us, Barbara was a dental hygienist and therefore had some knowledge of medical jargon and topics. I had more practical experience from working as a hospital orderly during college, for a pathologist for several summers and two years of pharmacy school. Nevertheless, we knew nothing of cancer. Even the diagnosis was a surprise, and this was a whole new world of medicinal compounds and radiology strategies. You’d think we’d have a lot of questions, but we really didn’t.

After every encounter with these two wonderful people, they would always conclude by saying, “Do you have any questions? – get them to us, and we will answer them promptly.” Over the course of that year, we probably had a hundred conversations with these individuals, and never once did we ask a substantive question because we didn’t know where to begin.

In total frustration, I called our family physician, now retired, Charles McCoy, a truly special physician in his own right, and expressed my frustration. He responded the way I hoped he would, with a question, “Jim, do you have a pencil?” I interrupted, “What?” Then Dr. McCoy said, “I have some questions for you to ask about your wife’s condition.”

What followed was literally several dozen questions we could ask about her condition, the nature of her illness, and what the various prognoses mean. Fortunately, Barbara’s younger sister Bonny, a nurse for her entire life and now retired, was the ideal asker of these questions. So we gave this list to her, and I think she had a great experience talking serious business with her medical colleagues. We learned a lot.

One lesson for me in this really intensive situation is, “Find somebody who knows what to ask.” Too often these very important people in our lives are too busy to think through what we might like to ask.

Another response I use with key people: “You do this every day, what do people in this circumstance ask you?” They answered, “Not many people ask questions… like you.” So I tell every doctor, medical technician, smart person that we work with that I need prompts on the questions, especially if I’m going through something complicated for the first time. I ask four questions:

  1. What does someone in a similar circumstance to ours need to ask you?
  2. If the answer is none, is none, my question is: what questions would you be asking if you were a patient at this point in our circumstance?
  3. When we meet, I do expect you to suggest questions we should be concerned about and provide the answers to those questions.
  4. Barbara always asked the question to get everybody thinking: “If I were your mother, what would you recommend for her to know and do at this time?”

Be gentle, be positive, be persistent. Be ready to help those who help you to avoid the cruelest question of all. Hope this behavior becomes one that helps you and likely many others.

Do you have any questions?

If you contact me, I promise to have questions you should ask me.

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