Issue to question
'I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.' (Richard Feynman)
When a person introduces an issue they are facing, we and often they are not always clear at the outset what underlying challenge that issue is posing for them. Rather than asking more questions about the issue itself, however, we could invite the person to reframe the issue as a question. ‘What questions come to mind as you think about this?’ ‘What question is this raising for you now?’
I worked with a strategy consultant who asked great questions; for example ‘What are the questions that, if we were to answer them, would enable us to make strategic decisions?’ In Action Learning sets, we could ask a presenter, for instance, ‘What are the questions you’d find most useful for us to ask?’ And, in high-challenge coaching, ‘What’s the question you’re hoping I won’t ask you?’
Priest-philosopher Thomas Aquinas observed that a good question can set a person off on a quest; a restless and intense journey of searching and discovery. It’s very different to providing a superficial answer that can close thinking down. I sometimes go one step further and ask, ‘What’s the question behind the question?’ It can raise tacit, subconscious and intuitive knowing into view.
Questions about questions
‘The smart ones ask when they don’t know. And, sometimes, when they do.’ (Malcolm Forbes)
We sometimes discover in new Action Learning sets that participants are unsure about the distinction between questions for clarification and questions for exploration. Participants may wonder, similarly, if and when closed and open questions should be used. This can lead to all kinds of awkward mental and linguistic gymnastics such as, for instance, wanting to ask a simple question for information, yet trying hard to frame it as an open question.
I find that one useful way to mark the difference between clarification and exploration questions is to consider, ‘Who is the answer to the question for?’ If I ask a question for clarification, the answer is for me, so that I will know or understand something better. If I ask a question for exploration, it’s offered as a gift that may, I hope, enable another person to gain insight and know or understand something more deeply or broadly for themselves.
We also sometimes discover that participants get a bit stuck when thinking about how to transition from questions for exploration to questions for action. They may wonder if, for instance, questions for action are questions for exploration that focus on action. I find a useful way to mark this shift is to think of questions for exploration as divergent (opening out) and questions for action as convergent (drawing together, to enable a close).
What we see here is that what makes a good question in Action Learning is determined less by rules about the structure of a question itself (e.g. whether it is an open or a closed question), and more by the focus and orientation of questions at each stage of the process. Participants pose questions in service of the presenter and, at the end of the day, it’s for the presenter to decide which land usefully for them or enable a shift towards a solution.
'Growth occurs when individuals confront problems, struggle to master them, and through that struggle develop new aspects of their skills, capacities and views of life.' (Carl Rogers)
A common consideration we face in coaching and action learning is, when asking a question, whom the question – or indeed the answer to the question – is for. For instance, if a person is describing a scenario in sketchy terms, we may be tempted to ask them to say more about it so that we have a better picture of the situation they have in mind. If they use jargon or acronyms with which we are unfamiliar, we may ask them to explain what they mean in order to fill our information gaps.
If you work in a job such as a manager, professional or consultant, this approach to asking questions may sound and feel very familiar to you. It’s probable that you are employed in such a role because you’re an expert in your field and are able, therefore, to contribute. It may be that others come to you with tricky problems in the hope that you can solve them for them. It’s likely that you will ask questions that help ensure you’re able to offer an appropriate diagnosis, prescription or solution.
Now turn this on its head. In coaching and action learning, I don’t need to know very much at all about a situation another person is talking about. My role is to help them to explore fresh avenues of thought and experience for themselves, in order to find or create their own innovative solutions. When I present this idea in training workshops, however, I often see participants look back at me with scepticism. ‘How are we supposed to pose useful questions if we don’t know anything?’
In one such workshop this week, I invited a group of online participants to engage in a simple experiment with me. I asked them to pay close attention, while I described a real challenge I’m dealing with. Before I began to say anything more about the issue itself, however, I turned off my microphone. Then, after a few minutes of speaking, I turned on my microphone again and asked them what questions they could now pose to help me think through my own issue more broadly or deeply.
It was a lightbulb moment. After a few moments of silence, questions began to emerge. ‘Which aspect of this matters most to you?’ ‘If you were to be successful in moving ahead with this, what would that look like?’ ‘Which part of this is causing you greatest anxiety or concern?’ I then turned off the microphone again and spoke further. A few minutes later, microphone back on again…then another invitation for questions. The group paused again, then posed further questions to me.
‘Where are you at now in relation to your thinking about this?’ ‘How will you know if you have landed on the right decision?’ ‘What support will you need to move this forward?’ It was a powerful moment of realisation. As we reviewed together what had happened, some profound group insights emerged. ‘We didn’t get drawn into the issue with you because we didn’t know what you were talking about.’ ‘Our questions focused on you in relation to the issue, rather than on the issue itself.’
The client is the expert. My role is to help develop, release and apply that expertise to influence change.
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‘Just ask the question.’ (Sonja Antell)
A key skill in coaching and action learning is simply to pose a question. Adding pre-amble before a question, or post-amble (as one action learning participant aptly named it this week) afterwards, is one way of establishing rapport and sometimes credibility by adding background and context to a question. We may hope, too, to communicate empathy and soften the hardness that a short, succinct question alone could convey.
Here’s an example of pre-amble: ‘I can identify well with the situation you are describing today. I’ve been in similar situations too and it reminds me of some of the challenges that I faced then. Given that experience, if I were to ask you a question now, I think I might ask…’ And of post-amble: ‘The reason for my asking this question is that sometimes people in the kind of situation you have described find it useful to consider…’
That’s OK, right? Yet imagine this. The person who is being coached, or the person presenting during action learning, is often engaged in an intense thinking journey, grappling internally with a challenge or struggle and seeking to make sense of it in order to move forward. A simple question can feel like a useful, light-touch nudge, a prompt, a possibility. Pre- or post-amble can distract the person, feel like interference and disrupt the flow.
So how to handle the relational and cultural risks of being too direct? How to avoid coming across as abrupt or rude? This is best addressed at the contracting and ground rules-setting stage. Helpful key questions to reach clarity and agreement from the outset include, ‘What are we here to do?’ and ‘How shall we do this?’ Then, as we step back periodically to review our work together, ‘What are we doing well?’ and ‘Even better if..?’
[See also: Claire Pedrick: Simplifying Coaching (2020)]
The present past
‘We are interested in the past only insofar as it impacts on the present.’ (Geoff Pelham)
I worked with a training group recently that was learning the skills of action learning, a form of group coaching in which one person presents an issue and others help her or him to think it through to find or create a solution. As one person at a time talked about a challenge that he or she was facing at work, I noticed others often instinctively posed questions or prompts that aimed to uncover the person’s history or the backstory to the situation. The person presenting would then typically respond with something like, ‘OK, let me take you back to the beginning, where it all started.’
In doing so, the presenter used up precious action-learning time reciting a story that he or she already knew. It was as if, by sharing wider background information in this way, the peer coaches would have greater understanding and, therefore, be better equipped to pose useful questions. Yet, as Claire Pedrick (Simplifying Coaching, 2021) puts it: ‘…our role is not to see the situation thoroughly, or to diagnose. It is for the thinker to see the situation thoroughly.’ The purpose of action learning, like coaching, is to enable the person to think more deeply and broadly for themselves.
Claire goes on to reframe past-facing questions by bringing them into the present, e.g. from, ‘Tell me your backstory?’ to ‘Tell yourself your back story and let’s see what we notice?’; or from ‘What have you already tried?’ to ‘If you look at what you have tried already, what do you notice?’ If a person repeatedly recounts the same story from his or her past, Claire will shift the focus to the present, the here-and-now, by posing a gentle challenge, e.g. ‘Assume I know everything. What do we need to think about today?’; or ‘What is your most important question about that today?’
I worked with a psychodynamic consultant, Kamil Kellner, in an action learning group. Once, when a person presented a topic by framing its origins in the past, Kamil noticed her emotional state as she spoke and reflected back simply with, ‘The past feels very present.’ I had a similar experience when once, as a student in a group, I became quite emotional. The psychotherapist tutor, Mark Sutherland, responded, ‘It’s not the first time you’ve been here is it, Nick?’ The past can resonate so powerfully in the present. The gift is to notice its presence and create a shift in the now.
Behind the question
We ask questions for all kinds of reasons. For example: sometimes it’s for information, e.g. ‘Which button do I push to turn on the photocopier?’ Sometimes it’s to think out loud, e.g. ‘Hmmm…how will I get home now the train has been cancelled?’ At times it can be to look clever or put someone else on the spot, e.g. ‘How about we compare my grades to yours?’ At other times it’s to stimulate reflection and learning in people or groups, e.g. ‘What do you think is really going on here?’
Influential teachers such as Jesus and Socrates excelled in the latter, posing questions to stimulate awareness and insight. Conrad Gempf wrote a whole book on Jesus’ approach called, Jesus Asked (2003), drawing attention to how often Jesus posed questions – including in response to other people’s questions. There’s something about great questions that can strike deep into our soul, our psyche, our assumptions and beliefs. They can detonate, evoke, provoke, create movement, shift.
A question I may pose is, ‘What’s the question behind the question?’ I may use it in leadership, coaching, training and facilitation if I sense there is something deeper, unspoken, hiding or struggling to surface. Sometimes it moves the focus from an issue to a person, making it person-al in the best possible sense. For example: ‘How can we improve people’s performance?’ could be reframed as, ‘How can I know that what we’re doing is making a difference to what’s important here?’
Another question I may pose is, ‘What do you need?’ In many cultures, we are conditioned to be and to appear confident, capable and self-sufficient. To admit to needing someone or something can feel like a confession of guilt, weakness or failure. In this context, addressing the need that lays behind a question can be transformational. For example: ‘How can we improve people’s performance?’ could be reframed as, ‘How can I meet my need to feel wanted, needed and successful here?’
In the question
‘Being in the question is wondering what things mean instead of assuming you already know…It involves treating your first thought as a hypothesis rather than as a statement of truth…It means being willing to learn something new about a situation. The first step is to consider the possibility that the situation may not be as it seems.’ (Latting & Ramsey, 2009)
I was encouraged to glance at this book, Reframing Change, recently after having posted a blog on a similar theme. I love the idea of ‘being in the question’. Posing a question is the act of projecting an inquiry outwards. By contrast, being in the question is about our own presence, attitude and stance – a spirit of humility, openness and curiosity – and a willingness to invite challenge.
It’s so different to proposing a solution. At times, we jump to answers too quickly, draw conclusions too rashly and potentially miss a deeper meaning, a greater significance that could change our thinking, our lives, our organisations, our world. This is a high cost of our do-it-now, instant, everything-in-the-moment, high speed culture. We lose the ability to reflect and to…....wait.
Perhaps being in the question is one reason why e.g. Jesus and Socrates had such a profound impact. Perhaps it is why coaching and therapy can be so transformative. Perhaps it is why rediscovering not-knowing is a theme in so many books on leadership and change today. Two questions: How far are you ‘being in the question’? How are you enabling others to be so too?
‘I don’t know’ is a leadership act that invites others in. (Karakusevic)
It all depends on the voice. I can say, ‘I don’t know’ with heavy heart and sloped shoulders, a voice of resignation, a paralysed feeling. A sense of no way forward. This may be a voice that I speak to myself, to others, when I encounter unfamiliar territory, new experiences, fresh challenges. It can leave me feeling stuck, lost, hopeless. I’ve heard this voice whisper in my own head from time to time and I’ve felt its debilitating effects.
I’m learning that I can use a different voice too: ‘I don’t know - but I’m really curious to find out. Let’s start something and see what happens!’ This voice comes from a free place, a spirit of playful inquiry, a willingness to experiment. It’s a voice that releases me, invites others to contribute, draws people in. It’s an approach to co-creative leadership that liberates and empowers. It’s at the heart of coaching: the power of not-knowing to release knowing in others.
This approach to living and leading can build optimism and agility in organisations where things are ambiguous and uncertain. No surprise, therefore, to see 2 new books in 2015: ‘Not knowing’ (D’Souza & Renner) and ‘Nonsense – The Power of Not Knowing’ (Holmes). Not-knowing frees us from the pressure to know and allows us to explore new ideas, new horizons, new paradigms. It enables us to embrace the future with open minds and hearts.
So I’m noticing resonances between current thinking, my Christian spirituality (e.g. ‘Cloud of Unknowing’) and what I’m discovering through experimental fields (e.g. Gestalt). And I’m very curious to hear from others who live, work and play in this not-knowing space too. How do you create and sustain a not-knowing mindset? How have you applied it to your leadership or coaching practice? What benefits of not-knowing have you found to be true?
Deconstructing the box
Why think outside of the box when you could dispense with the box altogether? Rosabeth Moss-Kanter commented recently on Twitter that ‘To lead real change, it’s not enough to think outside of the box. We need to think outside of the building.’ It reminded me of Chris Argyris who, some years ago, coined the phrase ‘learning loops’ to describe different levels of learning and application:
Single loop learning asks the question, ‘Are we doing this right?’, e.g. ‘Do we have a clear agenda for today’s meeting?’ Double loop learning steps back to ask, ‘Are we doing the right things?’, e.g. ‘Is a meeting really the best way to do this?’ Triple loop learning steps back further still to ask, ‘How do we decide what is right?’, e.g. ‘Are we focusing our attention on the most important things?’
Each step back brings new dimensions into the frame, surfacing and thereby opening assumptions to challenge. I think of it like concentric circles, ripples on a pond, ever moving outwards from the initial point of impact or concern. It exposes wider systems. It shifts the focus onto broader cultural or contextual issues in order to make sense of and take decisions within a narrower domain.
There are some parallels with strategic, tactical and operational lenses, aimed at ensuring effectiveness. Peter Drucker commented: ‘Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.’ How much resource do we waste in organisations inadvertently paying one person or team to burn the proverbial toast and another to scrape off the burnt bits?
So we are really looking at how to ask fundamental questions. ‘What is the purpose of our organisation in the world?’ I mean existentially or spiritually, not just pragmatically. 'Why are we here?', ‘What is shaping our values?’, ‘What are we aware of?’, ‘What are we blind to, filtering out?’, ‘What matters most to us, and why?’, ‘Why are we doing things this way?’, ‘Who or what is really driving this?’
This type of critique is where things get tricky and, potentially, revolutionary. Organisations, as people, shape their own perception of reality, what is real and what is true, by the way they construe situations, the narratives they create to explain their experiences, the rationalisations they use to justify their actions etc. And most of this is subconscious, hidden behind cultural filters and defences.
Deconstructing the box entails a willingness to acknowledge it first – to explore and reveal the unspoken, the unspeakable, the not-yet imagined. As leaders and coaches, it calls for vulnerability and courage. It demands a preparedness to challenge and be challenged, to open our eyes, perhaps pray, to expose our limits, our assumptions, our implicit collusion with what is and what appears to be.
When things get stuck
When teams are under pressure, e.g. dealing with critical issues, sensitive topics or working to tight deadlines, tensions can emerge that lead to conversations getting stuck. Stuck-ness between two or more people most commonly occurs when at least one party’s underlying needs are not being met, or a goal that is important to them feels blocked.
The most obvious signs or stuck-ness are conversations that feel deadlocked, ping-pong back and forth without making progress or go round and round in circles. Both parties may state and restate their views or positions, wishing the other would really hear. If unresolved, responses may include anger/frustration (fight) or disengagement/withdrawal (flight).
If such situations occur, a simple four step process can make a positive difference, releasing the stuck-ness to move things forward. It can feel hard to do in practice, however, if caught up in the drama and the tense feelings that ensue! I’ve found that jotting down questions as an aide memoire can help, especially if stuck-ness is a repeating pattern.
1. Observation. (‘What’s going on?’). This stage involves metaphorically (or literally) stepping back from the interaction to notice and comment non-judgementally on what’s happening. E.g. ‘We’re both stating our positions but seem a bit stuck’. ‘We seem to be talking at cross purposes.’
2. Awareness. (‘What’s going on for me?’). This stage involves tuning into my own experience, owning and articulating it, without projecting onto the other person. E.g. ‘I feel frustrated’. ‘I’m starting to feel defensive.’ ‘I’m struggling to understand where you are coming from.’ ‘I’m feeling unheard.’
3. Inquiry. (‘What’s going on for you?’). This stage involves inquiring of the other person in an open spirit, with a genuine, empathetic, desire to hear. E.g. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What are you wanting that you are not receiving?’ ‘What’s important to you in this?’ ‘What do you want me to hear?’
4. Action. ('What will move us forward?’) This stage involves making requests or suggestions that will help move the conversation forward together. E.g. ‘This is where I would like to get to…’ ‘It would help me if you would be willing to…’. ‘What do you need from me?’ ‘How about if we try…’
Shifting the focus of a conversation from content to dynamics in this way can create opportunity to surface different felt priorities, perspectives or experiences that otherwise remain hidden. It can allow a breathing space, an opportunity to re-establish contact with each other. It can build understanding, develop trust and accelerate the process of achieving results.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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