Where do powerful questions come from?

Many traditional leaders see themselves as experts – and often are – in what their people do. This results in a tendency to tell people what to do, not do, give solutions and advice rather than help them think for themselves. Neuroscience research points out, however, that people are more committed to their own ideas – insights – and have a higher propensity to act upon ideas for which they have a high sense of ownership.  NeuroLeadership practices include asking questions rather than providing answers. Questions that help the other person to have useful insights: powerful questions.

This we teach people in all of our neuroscience based training programs. And in all of the programs I have led as trainer one question has invariably popped up “where can I find more lists of powerful questions?”. This is understandable since the lists we provide in the manuals are obviously not exhaustive and we ask participants to endeavor not to use the manual questions in parrot-like fashion. When the question was asked the first time, I confess, I was taken by surprise and my answer must have had the characteristics common to those replies we sometimes give in order to buy some time to think about the real answer. This led me to start producing new lists that I could provide to students. However, as I did that, I had a feeling that I was not addressing the real underlying question: “where do powerful questions come from?” So I started thinking about my coaching practice.

Throughout the more than nine thousand hours of coaching I logged to date, I was rarely slowed down by want of questions. Yet, I had never stopped to think where I got them from. Sure, I too had absorbed many powerful questions lists from numerous coaching courses and books, but somehow it appeared that these served more as inspiration than as prompting. So I made a mental note to be more mindful about powerful questions generation during coaching sessions and by doing this I believe I have come up with a good insight about it. We know that whenever someone comes to us with a problem our natural tendency is to suggest one or more solutions. And since other people’s problems usually seem easier to solve than our own, the solutions we think about can be good and even numerous. Where do these solutions come from? How do we conceive them?

There are some alternatives. If we previously successfully solved a similar problem then the solution is simply retrieved from memory. If we do not happen to have a ready solution in memory, then a solution can be concocted by mixing and matching pieces of knowledge and experience in our head until a good idea comes up – an insight. In both cases the end result is an advice, suggestion, recommendation or what have you, that we generously give to the person. Executives, bosses, parents, people in general, always seem to have a good solution for a problem that is not theirs, and precisely because it’s not theirs.

But where do these solutions come from? Surely, they draw on the person’s knowledge and experience, still these need to be accessed and activated. Knowledge and experience – memories <em>latu-sensu</em> – are stored somehow and somewhere in the brain. Although this is not done in the pigeon-hole like fashion most imagine, for our purpose here this model is just fine. Billions of pigeon-holes each one containing a name, place, face or other piece of information.  However, stored memories – luckily – do not just randomly pop up unsolicited into our attention, although they may sometimes appear to. If they did our brain would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of pop-upping information and unable to do anything else. Besides, if it were a random process, it is highly improbable that precisely the information one requires would pop-up at exactly the moment one requires it. Remembering would be just a matter of hoping and waiting. If neither spontaneous nor random than the process requires something to initiate and orient it.

Stored information – of any kind – to be used needs to be specifically located and retrieved. The trigger for this process is a question. In information systems it is called a query. We query ourselves all the time to access the experience and knowledge stored inside us. When someone comes to us with a problem our brain immediately starts firing queries at itself. How real, serious, urgent is the problem? Have we faced a similar one beforehand? How can it be addressed, avoided, solved? How would we go about solving it? What would be the consequences of implementing one specific solution? and so on. Every query starts a process of rummaging through the pigeon-holes looking for a ready-made answer or useful stuff that can be recombined to form a solution. Once a response is produced it is brought to our conscious attention.

This is how we get to solutions; we “hear” them in our own mind. Thus the process is composed of three phases: query, rummaging and response. Most querying is low key and occurs very fast because it terminates as soon as the rummaging, itself a very fast process, produces an answer. Because consciousness is rather slow in switching on, query and rummaging often escape the scrutiny of consciousness because they are over by the time it kicks in. We do not “hear” most of our self-queries.

Responses on the contrary tend to be loud and last longer. Long enough for consciousness to catch up with them. So, it is reasonable that when someone comes to us with a problem we should offer responses (solutions) because that is all we are aware of in our brain. However preceding every answer we may have for the other person there is at least one question we asked ourselves. If instead of providing the answer we provided the question we could help the other person have an insight, just like we did. Discussing the merits of this diverts from the focus of this article, but higher degrees of commitment, motivation and ownership of the solution are part of the basket.

Powerful questions are the ones we ask ourselves to produce the answers we usually give people when they come to us with a problem. The more answers one has, the more powerful questions one could ask. The problem, again, is that we have little or no consciousness of the questions preceding the answers. However, we can learn to be more conscious of the queries. To achieve this we have two challenges: a short time window and a noisy brain.

The noise comes from cognitions and emotions, often feeding back on each other and creating noise loops that effectively engulf the weak signals. We can deal with the noise by learning to quiet our brain down. An effective brain is a quiet brain. This can be achieved by working on two fronts simultaneously. Developing the pre-frontal cortex’ thought-inhibition function, one of the five executive functions of the PFC <a title=”” href=”#_ftn1″>[1]</a>and developing emotional regulation skills. Meditation and other similar practices can help with this.

To become capable of picking up the fast signals we need to develop mindfulness, the state of higher level of consciousness. With mindfulness a more constant awareness of what is going on in our mind develops and we can pay more attention to it without having to wait for the usual kick-in time.

With a quieter brain and more mindfulness it will be easier to pick-up the weak and fast queries that we can then “offer” the other in the form of powerful questions.

[1] Your Brain at Work – David Rock – 2009

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