Sometimes the question is more important than the answer.  How can we discern what questions to ask?


This is a companion post to my earlier article,  Compassion in Listening

In Compassion in Listening, I wrote about the basic idea that when we listen to others, we are not fully available to hear what they are trying to express unless we clear our minds of our preconceived notions and ideas about what they are going to say.   In other words, we must open our minds to hear what they truly want to express, rather than just listening for what we want to hear.

To do this, we must first be aware of our own biases and the ways in which we tend to filter information.  Only then, with this increased insight about ourselves, can we counteract our tendency to project ourselves onto our friend’s situation.  Only when we unburden our relationship with our friend from our own “emotional baggage” – when we are “mindful” of our own biases and prejudices and counteract them intentionally – can we listen to our friend without filtering everything through the screen of our preconceived notions.

Corollary with this idea that we must not project our own self into our friend’s situation is the idea that we cannot “fix” whatever problem it is that brought our friend to us.

If we suggest our friend “ought” to do something to “fix” for a situation, once again we find ourselves in the position of imposing a solution from the outside in.  The solution will always be an externalized rather than an internalized solution.  Authentic to someone else – to me perhaps  –  but not to the person who came for assistance.

Have you ever had a friend who really seemed to hear you, to be “present” for you, and then compared that experience to a friend who seemed to listen, but kept injecting their own experiences and their own opinions.  If you imagine how this feels, you can see that it is much more helpful sometimes for the friend just to listen and ask questions, rather than jump to conclusions and give advice.

Conflict Coach Cinnie Noble published an article about this in 2006, entitled, “Mindfulness in Conflict Coaching”.   The specific pointers from this article are worth repeating.  Noble writes:

Being ‘present’ means, among other things: total concentration on the client and what s/he is conveying, adhering to the client’s goal and not what the coach perceives as the appropriate direction, hearing and understanding the client’s words and meaning, acknowledging what is being said and what is not being said, paying close attention to and acknowledging body language, facial expressions, tears, ‘ahas’,  creating and sustaining the space and energy where clients feel safe to vent and share, leaving our assumptions, needs, expectations and hopes out of the process.

Noble then goes on to stress that to be “present” for the other person, we need to make sure the encounter is about them and not about us.  She writes:

Although our advice and opinions come from a well-meaning place in us, they are not necessarily meaningful to the recipient. More often than not, the root of advice comes from our own values, beliefs and the outcomes we want for the client. However, that which originates from our lens and frame of reference, is not necessarily helpful for our clients and their growth. Nor, is it empowering or transformative.

In conflict coaching models that are premised on empowerment and transformation, the practitioner refrains from giving advice. Rather, coaches recognize that a shift in thinking, responding and feeling, evolves from our clients’ self-awareness. To honour and facilitate this, it is necessary to remain mindful of our clients’ goals and refrain from putting ourselves into the client’s journey, other than to help clear the path through being present. The art of powerful questioning also helps facilitate our clients’ self-awareness.

If our goal is to empower our friend or clients to make decisions that are as authentic as possible to their own values and circumstances, what tools do we have to do this?  The answer is that rather than providing answers, we provide questions.

Powerful questions are open ended questions that aim to help our friend understand their own hopes, needs, values, expectations, and goals. Powerful questions are questions which help our friend sort out their situation better.

Some examples of powerful questions that Noble provides are:

"What is most important to you about this conflict? What part of the conflict are you willing to let go of? What would it take to do so? Of the other part, what is it about that, that remains important to you?"

"When you leave here today, how do you want to feel (or think) about yourself (and/or the situation) that you don’t feel right now? How do you want to feel about the other person that you don’t feel right now? What may you do to make this become a reality?"

"What is missing for you that will facilitate your efforts to reach your goal?"

"What do you want to understand about the other person, that will help you reach your goal?"

"What do you want the other person to understand about you, that may facilitate resolving matters for him/her? How may that help him/her?"

"What may you say or do, to put this conflict behind you and move ahead? What keeps you from saying/doing this?"

People who are in conflict or who need help to understand a troubling situation are often “stuck” in a certain way of thinking.  Even if they think they have come to us for advice, what they really want is for us to help them find a solution that is authentic to themselves, which may not necessarily be what we ourselves would do or suggest.  Our greatest gift to our friend, therefore, is to listen in an open minded way and then to ask the questions that lead our friend to a better understanding of the situation and of possible responses to the situation.  Thus, we lead them to a new way of thinking or of approaching the situation, that helps our friend get “unstuck” yet results in a solution that truly comes from our friend, and not from within ourselves.

"Two monologues do not make a dialogue." — Jeff Daly


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