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Where do great questions come from?

I often reflect on how quick my children are to ask the really big questions such as "what happens when the sun burns out?" and "why do adults tell jokes that aren't funny?". We won't even go there with "where do babies come from?"...actually, much more interestingly, the big question my children inadvertently got me thinking about was "where do great questions come from?".


By far the most powerful question one of them asked me recently was "what are you thinking, Mum?". That caught me by surprise and it made me reflect. What was I thinking? That's a big question.

Well, a combination of things were pinging around in my head, from finances to client conversations to how best to support my parents during lockdown. The really interesting part about it for me was this: what had led my daughter to ask that question at that moment? She must have been watching my face, noticing a level of distraction, maybe seeing my eyes dart around as I thought and an overall stillness in my body. She might have seen small changes in my expression as I thought about different ideas. Whatever she saw, she was listening with her whole self, noticing lots of micro signals I was unconsciously giving off and that's where the brilliant question came from. She was genuinely curious as to what was going on in my mind, based on acute 'listening'.


Listening occurs at multiple levels, rather than being a binary "listening/not listening" affair. Stephen Covey's 5 levels of listening give us a helpful way of understanding this:

  1. Ignoring: making no effort to listen

  2. Pretending: giving the appearance of listening with gestures but able only to play back fragments of what's been said

  3. Selective: listening only to the parts that interest you

  4. Attentive: concentrating on the speaker, allowing them to finish, able to ask follow up questions

  5. Empathic: focused intently on the speaker, listening to understand intent and feeling and meaning, recognising emotions expressed

We might recognise the first 3 levels quite quickly. Think about the time your child tells you the in-depth blow-by-blow version of their epic dream. Remember the time you were in that meeting waiting to make your amazing point, offering the odd impatient nod while they droned on and finally left a gap for you to talk. Notice the way you asked someone "how are you?" but didn't focus on the answer. Most of us operate in Level 1 to 3 most of the time and that's OK; we have lives to live and things to do.


There are moments though when someone needs Level 4 or 5 listening to help them really think. As Nancy Kline writes: "the quality of your listening determines the quality of other people's thinking". We often miss the opportunity to hear what someone is really telling us (or not saying) or to help them think through a difficult problem or decision when we choose to withhold our highest quality listening. It is rare in life to find yourself properly listened to at Level 5.

The thing about Level 5 is that the listening is much broader than the words used. It is totally focused on the other person and it takes in the body, eye movements, tiny signals and emotions. Noticing these signals tells us what someone might be feeling and we can choose to reflect that back to help them see it too. When I reflect something I have noticed in coaching, the coachee can be slightly surprised but deeply in agreement; they hadn't necessarily been aware of it and something dislodges as a result. The signals that emerge from empathic listening also tell us when it's the right time for us to speak again (i.e. when the person has finished thinking) and, crucially, what to ask next.


And that's where great questions come from. Listening. How can you best help a client, direct report, boss, friend, partner, child, parent think through something and access their very best thinking? The answer is listening... and then when they're ready, asking great questions.


People ask "how do you know what questions to ask when you're coaching?" or "what are your top 5 coaching questions?". The answer is there is no list. The best questions always come from what's just been communicated by the other person and they are always open questions that prompt further thought and deeper reflection. They might even come from what's not been said or what's been felt. Coaching is a partnership where one person's listening generates thinking in another. And the best questions constantly drive to help create clarity for someone else, they are bold and challenging and they might pick up on the thing someone would prefer to walk past - the thing that's keeping them in a holding pattern. When you've been fully heard by another person and you've got 100% attention, it is an accelerator for better, more resourceful thinking and opens fresh insights and avenues for change.


I've written before about the limitations our own thinking can have on our ability to see new ways forward or to take action. Our minds can be echo chambers especially if we are also surrounded by like-minded people. A coach can break through this chamber by opening new windows in a mind, letting new shafts of light in and creating space for you to challenge preconceptions or 'truths' and create new clarity. It isn't through telling you what you should do or talking at you. It is something far more powerful, impactful and longer-lasting than that. It is helping someone create and verbalise insights that liberate them to think or do differently and the motivation and commitment to make a change comes from within. Real clarity provokes meaningful change.


For all who feel a bit stuck, compromised, unsure or want to be better, what difference would true clarity and alternative perspective make to you and your business right now? What could be your first step to find out?

 

Georgie Rudd is an accredited Executive & Leadership Coach, working with business leaders across global FTSE 100 and Professional Services firms. She leads Rudd Coaching Ltd, offering 1:1 and group coaching on a range of topics spanning business development through to leadership effectiveness, emotional intelligence and working parent coaching. Georgie often works on leadership impact, self-belief and the inner critic, managing healthier work/life rhythms, effective delegation, building relationships and career transitions. She also runs a highly impactful coaching skills programme for managers and leaders. Contact georgie@ruddcoaching.co.uk for more information or or to start a conversation.

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