Saturday 25 March 2023

How open is that question?

You know that thing, when you hear yourself explain something, and realise that you have never articulated it like that before; in fact that you hadn't really thought of it like that before. It's always a good moment. When I hear people I am coaching do that, I know that something valuable has happened. But it is also good to notice it in ourselves.

So I was interested in hearing myself talking about open questions, last week. The classic distinction between closed questions (those that can be answered with a yes or no answer) and open questions (those that expect a fuller answer) is helpful. Closed questions take forms such as 'Did you do that?' or 'Will you do that?' etc.  Open questions tend to start with What, How, Why etc, either stated or implied (though do be careful of 'Why did you...?' as it can sound like an accusation: many of us have been asked that 'Why did you break the window?' type of question as children...)

But what surprised me was to hear myself draw a distinction between directive open questions and truly open questions.

A directive open question might be 'What are your reflections on what happened that day?' That is, it is an open question, inviting a fuller answer than yes or no; but it also directs the person being asked - it says what you are interested in hearing about.  Whereas a truly open question is: What do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?  or likewise, What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?

I do not want to imply here that there is any hierarchy of questions; that closed questions are bad, or that truly open questions are the best. It all depends on context and intention. Closed questions are very important when you want to establish facts, or close a conversation with clear commitments for the future, for example. 

Likewise, directive open questions are very useful when you want to explore and understand more about a subject under discussion; and truly open questions are the ones to use when you want the other person to think independently of your influence: as themselves and for themselves. That is why they are the starting point in a Thinking Partnership approach. But it is worthy of note that even in a Thinking Environment, we use all three types. The truly open dominate; but if we encounter a block, we may move to directive open questions: 'What are you assuming that is stopping you from...' and then on to closed questions: 'Do you think that it is true that...?'

So the skill is to increase our awareness and become adept at using the type of question that best serves our purpose - or that of the person we are engaging with - at every stage of the conversation.

But as I said at the start, what I found interesting was that I had never made such an explicit contrast between the two very different types of open question as I did earlier this week. Someone must have been listening to me...


With thanks to Brandable Box and Lia Trevarthen for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Tuesday 14 March 2023


It is always fun when we re-learn what we have known for a long time, with renewed force.  The other day, I was coaching someone who had had a significant success, trying out a solution that she had generated in our previous session.

My mind was racing ahead, to ways we could build on this and consolidate the learning, so that it was more readily available to her in the future.

Spring or Winter?...
I considered asking her whether that was where she wanted to go with the conversation. I was somewhat torn. On the one hand, I like to give us much agency as I can to clients during coaching sessions, and believe that generally they know best where to take the session.  On the other hand, I don't like asking questions when I already know the answer: it seems a bit insincere and possibly even manipulative. And I was pretty sure that she would say 'Yes, of course.'  

In the end, the agency consideration won, and I asked the question. And I was so glad that I had.  Because, she wrong-footed my assumption, by saying: 'Actually, I'd rather just sit with that and let it settle.  Maybe we can re-visit it another time.'

Which reaffirmed two things that I really knew all along: one is that my instincts about agency and self-direction are sound, at least for the type of coaching I had contracted for with this client (and I suspect more generally). And the other is that we may think - we may be sure - that we know what someone is going to say in answer to a question. And frequently, we may prove to have been right. But that doesn't mean we knew - we never know until we ask and they answer. Prior to that it is just a guess. So using that as a reason (or perhaps more accurately, an excuse) not to ask is a flawed strategy.


Thursday 2 March 2023

Why we Listen to Bad Ideas (2)

I ended my previous post on this topic with a promise to consider the boundaries to what we might be prepared to listen to, and I will come to that in this post (difficult though it is to establish clear boundaries).

But before I do so, I want to add to the positive reasons for listening to bad ideas.  I realised after posting the first post that I had missed a few of these.

The first is that we may learn something. Which is why, in the context of the work I do, which is largely based in Higher Education, I think this is so important. Somebody may be wrong, but listening to them may give us some insights; they may not be wrong about everything, and may even express a truth that we have missed along the way. Or at the very least, they may make it clearer to us why we disagree, and that is valuable.

A second reason is that wrong ideas can often stimulate better ones. That is one of the assumptions of brainstorming, for example, and why censoring self or others in that context is counter-productive. As we react against the bad idea, we may sharpen our understanding of our better alternative, or possibly see a new better alternative that we had not previously seen. 

Further, if we listen, we are better able to refute a bad idea. That works on two levels; on the level of information, we can more accurately identify where the person's thinking has gone awry if we listen to it; and at the level of emotions, we are more likely to be listened to, if we have first listened. We have bought, as it were, a psychological right to be heard: this is the law of reciprocity in action.

And thinking back to my early career in telephone sales, and then as a sales trainer. we always tried to hear all of a clients' objections to a pitch before answering any of them: which makes perfect sense. 

So, given my strong advocacy for listening to bad ideas, what do I see as the boundaries?

These are hard to pin down, but I think that we can recognise, at least, some principles.

One is that children should not be subject to ideas that will be harmful to their health, well-being and development. The modern notion that children are simply younger adults is wrong-headed. We know enough about developmental psychology to assign such idiocy to the bin.

That principle of limiting what is harmful extends also to adults. We all know that it is an abuse of speech to shout 'Fire!' in a crowded place. Likewise, the guidelines around the reporting of suicides are agreed by the press because we recognise the real risk to some vulnerable people of social contagion.

But how that principle applies in other contexts, and who decides, are difficult issues.  Reflecting on this with a colleague, I made a link with the boundaries to confidentiality in a coaching relationship. I am always very clear that confidentiality is not absolute: that if someone discloses that they are breaking the law of the land, or the policies of the University that employs them, or proposes to harm others or themselves, that I may have to tell someone else. So perhaps the same, or similar, criteria could apply to the limits of what we are prepared to listen to; and it would certainly be valuable to have a similar clarity on the subject, at the start of any such discussions.


With thanks to  Mimi Thian and raquel raclette for sharing their photos on Unsplash