We have the answers, not the questions

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom” Francis Bacon

I often find myself looking for answers or solutions – a way out. Life as a father with two young kids, a career and personal ambitions the challenges of life are plenty. I am all too often trying to solve the next issue. The problem is that I have found I tend to be asking the wrong questions.

I tend to be trying to answer the immediate (short term) question. That’s more than not, the wrong question. The resulting answers tend not to be ones that either, work logically, or more importantly, sit comfortably with my gut, emotions or long-term view.

Quick fixes are usually short-term and we know that intuitively and they don’t sit well. So we ask the same question in different ways.

We end up getting stuck asking the wrong question rather than stepping back to ask what the real issue is.

In my coaching work I have found that my clients almost always have the answers. The problem is perspective – getting to the actual question – that they struggle with.

My clients have been people who, like me, are working to reconnect with a sense of purpose, a personal mission or a way to move forward from where they are. People looking to live and be more authentic. This is deep work. Difficult work. It means having to take the rose-tinted glasses off and look at ourselves, really look.

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let out true selves be seen.” Brene Brown

Typically the challenges personal growth throws up are ones which can often be uncomfortable. Challenging us at a deep level, the urge to be authentic is one of pruning, cleaning and growing. This process is by its very nature not superficial. We need to look at ourselves honestly to get to know, accept and then change the parts of ourselves that get in the way.

This is easier said than done. We are where and who we are because of the life we have lived. The decisions we have made and the behaviours we have habitualised are compounded layers we have added to fit in more, hurt less or protect ourselves. They might have been right for a short while but they become like a security blanket and we carry them for far longer than they are helpful. They become part of us.

The process of finding and removing these adopted aspects of ourselves is hard because it is like taking our secret forcefield away. It is making ourselves be vulnerable and it goes against the very causes for the behaviours in the first place.

In an attempt to protect ourselves, therefore, we fixate on the wrong questions. We focus on the symptoms not the causes and we usually attribute blame externally. Of course we do. Why would we intentionally hurt ourselves?

We are like babies trying to learn to crawl that get frustrated that their legs are in the way – not realising that in order to get where they want, they need to do something which feels wrong – put their legs behind them to push forward. The process of transformation to authentic selves is learning to be vulnerable, putting the layers behind us and moving forward.

“Ask the right questions if you’re to find the right answers.” Vanessa Redgrave

The right question strikes at the issue like an arrow striking the bullseye. When we get the question right the realisation is often immediate, a lightbulb moment. Somatically it can feel like a joint popping. The pressure is all of a sudden released. We have space again. Now we can start to go deeper and explore the answer and its implications. We now have a map and a set of tools. Quite often very little actually needs to be changed, change can often happen directly as a result of the insight.

Let me demonstrate this with a personal example to make it a little more real…

A number of years ago I was struggling in my job. I could not see eye-to-eye with my boss. While I had huge respect for him we had different opinions on how something should be done.

The problem, however, was that I was struggling to see past the difference of opinion. Then, it all came to a head in a coaching session where my coach asked me a pertinent question: “When did you first struggle with authority?”. I was focusing on questions like “How do I resolve this?” and “Why is he arguing with me?” etc.

When my coach reframed the question and focused on my behaviours rather than the specifics I was taken to another perspective and almost immediately I knew the answer.

It was as if time slowed and my thinking slowed with it and I could feel the pieces of the puzzle fall into place simultaneously as the pressure in my body evaporated. All of a sudden, all the tension I had held in my shoulders was gone and I could see what I was doing.

My relationship with my father was not the best and although I loved him deeply, I also harboured a lot of anger and resentment towards him. My issue with authority started with my father, whose authority I didn’t respect.

There and then in that coaching session I came to see that I had been projecting my issues with authority onto my male bosses. The closer we worked, the more responsibility I was given the more I anticipated that it would be taken away from me.

It was as if I had just dropped a huge backpack I didn’t realise I was carrying. The answer didn’t require any more work – it happened automatically. I knew then that I was behaving in a way that was born out of self-preservation but it had outlived its need and was now hurting me.

With perspective comes space, to think and act rather than react

My coach had heard in my description, tone and choice of words that the emotions were bigger than the actual issue that was frustrating me. The actual problem was being masked. By lifting the question away from the specific situation but rather to a trend I was no longer battling in the trenches but immediately lifted up over the entire battlefield. I could see strategically rather than tactically and with that I had a moment of clarity that changed my life forever.

I see this happen time and again in coaching, my own and others, and it is probably the motivation to keep going. The eureka is the reward, seeing and feeling the answer appear as the question sinks in and with that the relief, the resolve or the clarity that replaces the sadness, anger or frustration. It is a magical moment that is precipitated by changing the question.

What are you struggling with in your life? What are the questions you are asking and are they the right ones? If you seem to be stuck, here’s an exercise that might be helpful. Think about the problem and try to find the common thread that runs through this and other problems from before. When you find the commonality ask yourself what its purpose is.

Take the question to a theme rather than a specific issue to give yourself the space to see it entirely. Why did it start in your life and why do you still carry it with you?

“Hiding in plain sight: The answer to your quandary is right there, in front of you. It’s just that it involves more work, more risk or more trade-offs than you were hoping for.” Seth Godin on 2 November 2018