Questions, Not Answers

“What makes you so smart?”

I was asked that question this morning by a potential client, showing me something I’ve known for a long time – people’s idea of a consultant or coach or pastor (all things I do in my life.) is someone brimming full of answers, some sort of sage from on high who will tell you what to do.

Oh boy is THAT ever totally wrong.

I’m not stupid. Far from it. I can design a TV studio in my sleep. It is second nature for me to look at a business and figure out how it can move to the next level. I know a lot about the bible and how it applies to life. I could give you advice based on what I know all day long and it probably would be pretty good stuff. I’ve even been accused of being wise (something I deny more and more as I get older.) Yeah, I can give advice, but mostly, I don’t.

Because that’s not enough. Because it would not be the best advice for you. It would be my opinion of the best advice. And I’d miss some pretty important stuff.

No, my value comes in asking questions. Questions that make you think. Questions that help you look at things in a new way, in different ways. Questions that help YOU find the answers. Not my answers, your answers.

I had to learn to do this. It did not come naturally to me. Questions were not encouraged when I was growing up. Not by my parents. Not by my teachers. Not by a lot of the people I worked with. I came from a “just accept it” world where everyone else was allowed to be certain and my job was to follow.

But that’s not how you grow. That’s not how we get to the core of who we are, or what solutions work best. Thinking we have the answers doesn’t get us there. At best, thinking we have the answers keeps us in the same place. At the worst, it sets us back. Certainly, it keeps us from moving forward.

My journey of understanding that began when I put myself in therapy, about 12 years ago. I was undone and I expected the therapist to be able to say “You have this and this and this going on and you need to do this to fix it.”

I could not have been any more mistaken.

It was a cavalcade of questions. Easy ones. Hard ones. Made me thing ones. Made me confront the false beliefs and lies I had been telling myself. It was not fun. Not fun at all. But boy did it do me good. To say it probably saved my life is not an understatement.

The experience changed me, not just in terms of fixing a lot of things that needed fixing, but also in the way I approached my work. I had mostly been the boss in a lot of my jobs till that time. People came to me for answers. I gave answers. It was kind of heady being the guy everyone came to for answers. But through my experience with the therapist, I came to realize I was short-changing all those people who came to me for answers.

Because I was giving them my best answers. Not THEIR best answers. Not the best answers for them, just my opinion of what their best answers would be. To get to the best answers for someone else, they needed to go through that same process, of being asked questions that made them find their own answers. Because, when we find our own answers, when they come from within us, we claim them. We act on them. We internalize them. We have an enthusiasm and energy that we never have when someone else gives us the answers.

So much of the last ten years has been spent learning how to ask good questions. Yeah, I actually studied learning to ask questions. I read books on it. Attended seminars. Much of my training with the John Maxwell Team centered around asking good questions. Questions that help others come to good answers for themselves, the best answers. Today, and for the last several years, I rarely tell people what to do. I ask them things. They figure out and with answers that are theirs, they move their lives and work forward.

Asking good questions is harder than you think. At least it has been harder to learn than I thought. Because asking good questions means the question asker has to be totally present in the conversation. The asker has to listen without an agenda – JUST listen, so you can hear what’s being said, and what might be behind the answers. The asker has to resist the natural tendency we all have to throw our own two cents worth into the conversation, but instead be focused on the other person, where they are, what they are discovering, how they are feeling. It means looking for the next question, not to give an answer.

Which is part of why it’s dang hard. Why it takes time and work to do.

But I’ve seen amazing results from my shift from telling to asking. I have been a way better manager since I learned to ask more than tell. I’m a better consultant. A better coach (a WAY better coach), and as I have moved into the pastorate the past couple of years, I am far better than I ever could have been when I actually thought I had the answers.

Because my answers are not yours. And never will be.

Why am I writing this? I am not sure. Maybe to clear up a misconception about consultants and coaches, Or maybe just to say that when you are looking for the best advice, pay attention to whoever is offering it. If they are full of answers, they may have some value. If they are full of questions, however, you are on your way to your best answers.

Because they are yours – a treasure uncovered.Keep that person around. They are your roadmap to success, whatever you are doing.

Be well. Travel wisely.

Tom

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