This blog has already been published on May 21 on Global Leadership Foundationin website:
On the importance of questions and not knowing
One of the most important aspects of being a leadership coach – or indeed a leader – is a willingness to continually learn and continually improve the way we work. Two experiences have emphasised this for me, both having a very strong effect on the approach I take to my coaching. Despite many years of experience as a coach, and a trainer of coaches, I now see the coach’s role from a different perspective.
The first experience was with the Global Leadership Foundation, and was the opportunity to take part in a Quantum Think program hosted by Alan Collins. Central to the program was the question, “What do you really want?”. For many years I had set myself goals and targets based on asking myself ‘what do I want’ or ‘what do I want next’. Adding just this one word – ‘really’ – changed this basic question into one I could no longer easily answer. And that was where the power came from.
Not being able to answer the question forced me to think. It sent me on a quest deep within myself. What did I really want and need? At work, in life. In my most important relationships. I thought about this for weeks and months, and after the initial pain of not being able to answer the question I started to enjoy the process and see the power in just repeating the question. I started to accept the fact that there was no quick answer and appreciate that I had been invited to explore something very important, and that this process was not be rushed. The question kept working it’s magic in me.
The second experience was a Transformative Coaching workshop run by Richard A. Bowell (author of What is next – A template for real change). This training taught me more about the value of ‘not knowing’. I started to appreciate how we can only advance our thinking by having the patience to stay in a state of ‘not knowing ’ as long as is necessary. Richard strongly encouraged us to look for answers inside ourselves – not by reading another book or listening to experts, nor even by focusing on what we already know ourselves. Rather, he wanted us to put all that aside and explore the ‘not knowing’ with a curious mind and questions.
During this workshop a group of experienced coaches simply started asking questions of each other, without trying to answer any of them – without trying to be the expert on anything. We found ourselves on a very powerful journey of learning. We learnt that, paradoxically, only asking questions did in fact provide answers – just not in the traditional way.
Anyone who has experienced personal coaching on any level – life coaching, career coaching, leadership coaching, etc. – will be aware of the role questions play in the coaching process. Coaches are taught the concept of the ‘empty head’ and the importance of ‘not knowing’. In other words, we are taught to approach our ‘coachee’ with a completely open mind. This leaves the asking of questions as one of the main tools in the coach’s bag.
There is a danger here, however. As a trainer of coaches, I’ve found that coaches can become fascinated with their own competency when it comes to asking questions. They can become even more enamoured by their ability to create quick and strong insights for their clients and move them rapidly to a planning stage. The coach might then guide their client towards commitments to actions which are only superficial, creating only attempts to change – not real, meaningful and sustainable transformation.
Another danger is that a coach sees themselves as ‘the one who has the questions’. To do this is to overlook what is perhaps the most powerful part of the coaching process – the point at which the coachee starts asking questions of themselves, getting curious about their own thinking. Coaches, and leaders with a coaching style, should be very sensitive about fostering this.
As a result of the two experiences I described earlier, I started to experiment with how asking questions without trying to answer them can be a very effective way to embrace the state of not knowing.
This has changed the way I coach. I pay much more attention to the questions my coachees ask themselves, and encourage the teams I coach to do the same. And more than ever I trust the innate knowing that can emerge from this approach.
My wish for coaches and leaders is to train themselves to have a very grounded presence, assisting them to stay longer in a state of ‘not knowing’, to the point where it feels unpleasant or even threatening. To learn something new, to solve complicated challenges, we need to become comfortable with this. For new knowledge to emerge, one must first give up knowing it all, and even wanting to know it all.
Humans have an exploratory instinct that we can see beautifully in children. We are not meant to lose this gift of curiosity but unfortunately as adults we often do.
When it comes to my own questions, I still haven’t answered the big one completely. I still keep searching for my Big Dream. Yet simply asking the question ‘what do I really want?’ has already led me to change my life in a big way, both personally and professionally. I encourage you to find comfort and insight in your ‘unanswerable’ questions too.
Continuing from the theme of last month’s post, ‘Listening without interrupting’, this time we welcome another guest contributor. Sari Ajanko-Salin is a leadership coach (an ICF Professional Certified Coach) and trainer of coaching skills as well as being a Global Leadership Foundation Fellow. She lives and works in Finland.