If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first fifty-five minutes to formulate the right question, because as soon as I have identified the right question, I can solve the problem in less than five minutes.
Albert Einstein

A big part of my job as a coach is helping my clients elicit the answers they need to get clear. The problem is, most of my clients come to me with a habit of eagerly seeking answers without first being patient with the questions. My job as a coach is to help my clients discover the answers within them by asking questions with the potential to shift paradigms and teaching my clients how to question themselves.

Occasionally, a new client finds all the “hanging out in the questions” unsettling. When I ask them a question, they respond with a knee-jerk reaction— “I don’t know!” When I ask what they want to get out of a session, they say that I should know because I’m the coach. They wish I could give them the answers (and the Over-Achiever in me sometimes wishes she could too!).

Why questions challenge us.

If you find the prospect of asking questions that you don’t have an immediate answer for a bit uncomfortable or even irritating, there may be many reasons why. We’re all born with an innate drive to question, but many of us are taught to suppress our curiosity from an early age. You may have been taught that if you were smart enough, you’d certainly know the answers. Time can feel scarce in our go-go-go society, and it takes time to pause and question what we’re doing. What’s more, questions force us to face situations that can be hard to look at and threaten to upend the sense of hard-won stability. Neurologist Robert Burton writes that our cultural lack of questioning is so drastic that we face a “certainty epidemic.”

Although my clients sometimes wish I’d just tell them what I’d do, as a coach, I know that this would ultimately be less helpful. So, from in my very first session with clients, I set a conscious agreement with clients that I will default to asking them questions rather than offering advice and that they will sit with the questions I ask, rather than asking me for answers.

When my clients get quiet and access that somewhat inarticulate space from which our intuitions arise, profound transformation occurs. They may say something like— “Hmmm… I think what’s going on. It’s… No, that doesn’t feel quite right, maybe it’s… Yeah, that’s a little closer… Oh! That’s it! That’s what’s going on! I know what I need now!”

If you ask a question and you don’t yet know how to answer it, the truth is, it’s often a good thing.

Like Zen koans which confound the rational mind but transform us spiritually, questions that we cannot yet answer have the power to change the way we see the world and ourselves completely. To develop new habits and discover insights that lead to change, we need to step outside of the box of our habitual patterns and current knowledge. Even though this is almost always a bit uncomfortable, when we ask good questions, we step outside of our usual boxes and open ourselves to possibilities we may have never encountered otherwise. The sometimes-slow process of self-inquiry usually generates more creative ideas, greater self-confidence, and longer-lasting skills than does rehashing old responses or relying on a so-called expert to tell us what to do.

One caveat about question-asking, however—

Despite how powerful good questions are, there are two types of questions that can actually exacerbate confusion and stuckness. I often hear new clients asking these questions when they first come to work with me, and I encourage you to watch out for these from now on. They are—

  1. The “Why Can’t I?” Question:   Questions that start with “Why can’t I…?” are based on the assumption that you can’t do something, and they focus on figuring out why you can’t. But who knows that you can’t do that thing? And isn’t it more interesting and helpful to see if you can?
  2. The Either-Or Question:  This sounds like— “Should I do this or should I do that?” Either-or questions are based on the assumption that there are only two ways to meet your needs, and they limit the options you can see. The truth is that there are usually way more possibilities than you’re currently imagining. When you let go of the notion that there are only two possible solutions, you gain the space to consider greater possibility and focus your attention on discovering creative solutions.

Ask “How might I?”

From now on, I encourage you to catch yourself asking “Why can’t I?” or “Should I do this or that?” Then, shift to a “How might I?” question instead. This might sound like—

  • How might I (do this thing that I want to do)?
  • How might I create the change I desire?
  • How might I take the next small step forward?

Your Guiding Question

Many years ago, I taught Birthing From Within childbirth classes to pregnant parents, most of whom were hoping for a natural childbirth. At the beginning of the class, I told the parents that my mission was twofold. On the one hand, I would give them the tools they needed to maximize their chances of having the birth they wanted. On the other hand, I would teach them how to come away from the experience feeling whole and loved, no matter what type of birth they ended up having.

One of the many practices from Birthing From Within that I continue to teach to this day is called the Guiding Question. To help my pregnant clients discover their guiding question, I’d ask them what they most wanted to embody during their birth experience.

For example, a mother might say that she wanted to open to the power of birth. Given that she would only have one chance to give birth and would need to practice until that moment, I’d next ask how she might embody this intention in all the moments leading up to the birth. In response, she might respond that she wanted to open to the power of the present moment. Then, I’d invite her to shape this statement into a question that activated her curiosity and inspired her to embody her intention in each moment leading up to the birth. Her guiding question might become— How might I open to the power of this present moment?

Let’s say that you have an equally important commitment that you’re working to embody. A guiding question asks you how you’ll live your commitment now, rather than in some abstract future. And in the moments when you don’t know how to live your commitment, a guiding question can inspire you to investigate what might work.

I invite you to create a guiding question now.

First, I invite you to free-write in response to the question— What do I long to be able to do? Set a timer for three minutes, and write non-stop for the entire time, not censoring what comes up. At the end of this time, choose one short statement which embodies what you want to be able to do. Examples from current clients include “paying attention to what excites me” and “growing an inspired and engaged team” and “trusting myself.” Make sure that the statement is short and framed in the positive, focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want.

Then, turn this statement into a question. One way to do this is with the simple formula— How might I (fill in the blank), right now? For example— “growing an inspired and engaged team” becomes “How might I grow an inspired and engaged team, right now?”

Other statements-turned-guiding-questions might sound like:

  • “Trusting myself” becomes “If I trusted myself completely, what would I do right now?”
  • “Paying attention to what excites me” becomes “What is exciting me, right now?”
  • “I want to be a leader” becomes “What would a leader do?”

Play with molding what you want into a question that resonates and feels exciting. When you’re done, write your guiding question down on an index card and put it where you can see it.

I invite you to keep coming back to your question, investigating what arises in each moment. If you don’t get an immediate answer or you hear an “I don’t know!” in response to the question, I invite you to patiently ask yourself— Okay, I don’t have the whole answer, but what do I know?

The more you ask your question, the more you will hear your inner guidance. By living your question, day after day, hour after hour, you will gradually live into an answer. Remember the words of Rainer Maria Rilke—

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Please share your comments below! I look forward to hearing from you.

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