Business writing,  Coaching,  Humanising business,  Leadership

Sometimes I don’t even know the question

This article is based on a speech I gave at the Meyler Campbell Graduation Ceremony in London, in September 2021

What do you want from this article? 

What would you like to have when you finish reading these words that you don’t have now? 

What are the key facts that we need to be aware of? 

What are the options for action here?

What is your gut telling you?

And – if you did know the answer, what would it be?

These deeply insightful questions are brought to you from a document I found buried deep inside my computer, called “usefulquestions.doc” dated April 2009, and I wish I could share with you the very dog-eared paper copy of this gem that I used to carry around in my handbag when I first started my coaching practice – equal parts crib sheet and security blanket. 

I mean, can you imagine? In the middle of a coaching conversation – immaculate attention, unwavering eye contact – and I say, “sorry, excuse me just a moment”, and have a little rummage around amongst lipstick and tissues … ahem … “What Have You Already Tried?”

The best question on that whole list – and one we can perhaps come back to a little later  was one I’d scrawled in pencil up the side for own reference only, “Are their eyes shining?”

Fortunately, my coaching practice has moved on a bit since then, but you can see how I might have started there. So much of what we learn when we learn about coaching is that it’s all about the questions.

We all know the experience of being around someone who doesn’t ask any questions. 

In some social circumstances, it can be an introvert’s dream scenario – I have lost count of the number of drinks parties, dinners, wedding receptions I’ve been to where I’ve been able to hide in plain sight – just ask a couple of questions of the right people, and they’re off, and you’re home and dry.

Not asking questions is more common than you might think. It’s not necessarily because someone is full of their own sense of importance or their own narrative – though I read somewhere that on average we spend 80% of our talking time talking about ourselves and our own experiences – it can also be that we are shy, or don’t want to intrude, or be inappropriate, good old British awkwardness, or that we don’t want to appear uncertain or vulnerable, particularly if we are in a profession where it’s our job to bring certainty.

Here’s a little story. A good friend of mine, a lawyer, has been working from home of course for the past year or so, and a few months into lockdown he noticed that his keyboard was looking a little grubby and dusty, and so he decided to take the Henry to it. So he’s vacuuming away, and he hears this click and sort of rattle and realises that he’s accidentally hoovered up a key – there’s a little gap and a rubber pad bottom right on his keyboard where a key used to be. So he opens up the hoover bag, lots of grumbling, has a look, but can’t find the key anywhere, so he thinks, okay, well, never mind. It’s not immediately obvious what’s missing, it’s probably okay. So he cracks on with his lawyering – writing papers, sending emails. It takes him two days – TWO DAYS – to realise that the missing key was, in fact, the question mark.

So, asking questions might be harder than we think, for all sorts of reasons, but we also know that it’s important. A world without questions is a world without curiosity, without new ideas, new slants, a world without wonder. 

And so we see questions show up in all of the most important parts of life.

Questions appear a lot in and around childhood for example.

My older children’s questions aren’t very interesting – can I borrow a tenner? Can you drop me at Layla’s? What time do I need to be home? But younger children ask cracking questions – here are just a few from the little people in my life over the past few weeks…

Do worms like parsnips?

Why is the moon?

What did camels evolve from?

How tall was the tallest man in the world when he was a baby?

Shall I pour this jug of freezing water over my head?

I think the best question I ever asked one of my own children was as I was picking him up from nursery when he was tiny. I was crouched down, helping him put his jacket on, when I noticed something brown and sticky on his tshirt. “is this chocolate?”, I said, scooping it off  … and licking my finger …”or poo?”

Questions show up in the in our highest and most earnest search for meaning  –– the unanswered questions in Buddhism about the eternal nature of the world, and whether there is life after death, in Juddaism – why is this night different from all other nights? In Christianity when Jesus says to his disciple Peter, ‘who do you say I am?’

Questions show up at the heart of politics – cui bono? Who benefits? Who decides? Who pays?

They should up in business – for example Toyota’s famous five whys – that Interrogative seeking after root causes, assumptions and truths in pursuit of making things better.

Questions show up in my beloved poetry – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’,

or in that brilliant closing line of Mary Oliver’s – think about the power of ending with a question – 

Tell me, what exactly is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Now we’re getting closer to the heart of it. What are the questions that people are really asking? What’s the question behind the question? The river under the river? Is it questions all the way down? What is worthy of our individual and collective attention?

Sometimes, it’s not susceptible of easy definition, and that’s okay. I am thinking of something my daughter said recently when she came home from school stumped after a test. 

“It’s not just that I don’t know the answers, mum,” she said,

“it’s that sometimes I don’t even know the question.”

Sometimes I don’t even know the question.

Which of us can’t relate to that? In a period of so much uncertainty and fear and speculation and change and confusion and upheaval and regret and longing, when there are so many competing and conflicting demands on my time and skills and energy and loyalties ….

Sometimes I don’t even know the question.

We’re on our knees, praying, dealing the tarot cards, listening to Boris, reading the tea leaves, reading books, or sitting with our coaches, and sometimes we don’t even know the question.

Can you see, then, how vital, exciting and sacred the role of coaches is in that context? The role of a coach has literally never been more important. 

And so I’m encouraging all of us – leaders, coaches, parents, colleagues, friends – to leave your dog-eared list of ‘useful questions’ at the door, and to enter that space instead with simply your deepest love and attention. Your job is simply to show up, to bear witness, to hold the uncertainty. 

I was delighted to discover recently that the original meaning of the word conversation, to converse, was to live among, to be in company with. It also, for a period, meant to have sex with someone.

So, when you are in a ‘coaching conversation’ … you are living among that person. Paying attention, seeing the world from their perspective. Yes, there will be questions you can ask. We’ve all seen the amazing ah-ha moments and shifts that a well-placed question can bring. 

I read recently that our questions are spades. I like that. Questions sort of digging things out. But the first time I read that, I misread it and thought that the author was saying that our questions are spaces. I like that even more!  The point isn’t the answer, it’s the space and opportunity the question creates.

These days, when I coach, I like to think of my whole body as a question. I like to think of myself as shaped like a question mark – my ears and eyes forward, looking, listening, my own heart and story held back to give the space that my client needs, but my gut out, my intuition very much in the room, and my feet grounded to bring safety and security.

When I can show up that way, this work honestly feels like the most blessed privilege on earth. For me, it’s the answer to that Mary Oliver question – Tell me, what exactly is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?