As part of my coaching practice, I sometimes run peer coaching groups. These are supportive spaces where people facing similar challenges can come together to be heard, sustained, and encouraged as they navigate change.
In our brave, new virtual world, these groups can bring together people from Texas to Rhode Island, from Florida to Kentucky. It’s astonishing to me how it’s possible–even via video–to hold space for strangers to share our deepest anxieties and our heartfelt gratitudes. In these groups, we can ask for a little support or share wisdom around particular issues. Sometimes, the best we can do is say, “You are not alone in feeling that way.” And that helps.
I’ve developed a set of touchstones to guide interaction in peer coaching groups. Based on the commitments developed by Parker J. Palmer and the folks at the Center for Courage and Renewal, the touchstones help create a circle of trust for the folks who join the conversations. Among them are reminders that we should pledge to listen to each other, but that we should not engage in “fixing, saving, advising, or correcting.”
The touchstone that has become paramount in my peer coaching groups is this one: “Seek to respond to each other with open-ended questions rather than advice. In this way you make space for the other person’s ‘inner teacher.’”
In coach training, one of the first things I learned was that listening is not a passive process. It is an action. And one of the most important elements of active listening is asking questions.
Not all questions are created equal. Some kinds of questions are very directive. They tend to invoke narrow perspectives or even to make the person who is questioned feel defensive. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, invite a person to approach a problem from a new direction or to use a new lens to look at a situation. Open-ended questions are powerful, so powerful that in coaching, we call them “powerful questions.”
In my peer coaching groups, I watch as individuals shared deep concerns and frustrations, and other members of the group respond with powerful questions like “Tell me more.” “What did that mean to you?” “Can you say more about ____?” The questions made the speaker feel heard and helped her think about problems in different ways. On several occasions, someone has said, “You know, that question that so-and-so asked me last week really got me thinking about this challenge in a new way, and that was very helpful for me.”
Powerful questions also help the listeners better understand themselves and their own challenges. In one call, after several rounds of questions, one listener said, “As you all talked, I really grew to understand the many layers of this issue. It’s really complicated.”
Last week, I happened across a beautiful description of potential for insight that can be evoked with a powerful question in Irish poet-philosopher John O’Donahue’s posthumously published collection called Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World. He writes:
One of the most exciting and energetic forms of thought is the question. I always think that the question is like a lantern. It illuminates new landscapes and new areas as it moves. Therefore the question always assumes that there are many different dimensions to a thought that you are either blind to or that are not available to you.
I was struck by his image of the question as a lantern that illuminates new things. I see this happen again and again in my work with individual clients and in peer coaching groups. When folks listen to each other with care, curiosity, acceptance and support and ask questions that invite deeper exploration, insight, and illumination, they invite deeper understanding in and among themselves.
In every environment where we interact, we can use the lantern of our questions—honest, open-ended, and genuinely curious questions—to help us understand each other.