Great Questions

By Chris Chittenden

"We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."

… Desmond Morris (b. 1928) English zoologist

The modern world is consumed with the need for answers. We are constantly seeking to explore the universal principle of cause and effect for answers to understand life, the universe and everything. The benefit of such inquiry through the centuries can be seen in the standard of living that many enjoy today.

Each answer we create is an interpretation of a situation. The better the interpretation, the better the answer. Many people come to see their answers as a definitive interpretation - the "truth". When they do this, they come to the end of their journey of inquiry in that specific domain and their "truth" becomes part of their unchallenged assumptions which informs their future interpretations.

There appears to be a clear benefit for each of us in developing our own "truth". Human beings are drawn to the need for certainty, particularly as it applies to our future. When we believe something is absolutely true, we ascribe it certainty. In doing so, we no longer have to consider that aspect of our life and so we can put it aside and consider other things.

The downside to holding the "truth" is the creation of a blindness for us. We no longer see a "truth" as being open to challenge and ignore any evidence that may contradict it. As this "truth" is an unseen context for future interpretations, it is also means this blindness may lead us to unresolved paradoxes in our worldview.

Like the principle of cause and effect, an answer is also part of a pair - an answer comes from a question. In this sense, it can be seen that a question is the beginning of a journey and the answer is the end. What lies in between is the opportunity for learning.

Today we are challenged by increasing change and complexity leading to an inclination to look for more certainty in order to cope. As a result, we want our answers to be the "truth" as this gives something to hold onto in a growing space of uncertainty. The problem here is that our "truth" is often not the best way to deal with these new situations as the accompanying blindness closes off better solutions to the issues at hand.

Each question can be seen as a context for the responding answer. A question points us somewhere. For example, if I ask you "what is most valuable to you in reading our e-zine?" then you will most likely consider the aspects that are of value for you. On the other hand, if I ask you "what is least valuable to you in reading our e-zine?" then I am creating a context where you will see little value. The question points us in the journey of thought to be undertaken.

Master Coach, Julio Olalla has called coaching "a love affair with questions". And great answers require great questions.

So what makes a great question?

A great question will either open up the unknown for us or challenge our "truth". A great question is one that initiates a journey of discovery. It is one that does not have a ready answer and challenges our world view, creating a level of uncertainty for ourselves.

And this is why human beings do not tend to ask the great question. We don't want that uncertainty. It is easier to stay in our bubble of certainty believing that we know how we are and how the world is. It takes courage to ask great questions and even more courage to take the journey through the space of uncertainty to find new answers.

It is the questions they ask that make great coaches "great". They ask great questions and provide the support to help their clients through the space of uncertainty. They take their clients on journeys of adventure. Great coaches will do what we cannot do ourselves. They will challenge our "truth".

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© 2013 Chris Chittenden