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Unlock Closed Doors With Open Questions


One of the great things about mindfulness training is that you start to notice the details in life. As a generally global (or big picture) thinker with a mind that revs like a Ferrari, it can be super-hard to notice the details.

So one of my recent learnings has been that stopping to settle the mind and notice the details, ponder the thoughts before furiously screaming onto the next one is that you can start to spot some patterns. In all the hubbub of normal discursive thoughts things can seem random, but the brain (well my brain anyway) clearly has a hierarchy of stuff it wants to chew down on.

So I’m starting to be able to pick out the recurring topics and then create some useful outputs from those thoughts.

The one that comes around the most is just how many situations in everyday life an open question seems to be the right way to approach a scenario.

A couple of examples. Last week I was having a coaching conversation with someone who appeared from my perspective to be struggling with some self-defeating inner self-talk. (Trash talk). My reflex response was to try to talk her out of it with fact and logic. But I’ve gotten good at suppressing the initial caveman “me fix this” response. And instead, after a second of contemplation, I was able to access the open questions bank in my brain.

A challenging, emotional and draining conversation followed. But it was a two way street, me asking open questions – my colleague talking about the issues confronting her. We weaved and bobbed our way through the conversation, without ducking the hard parts, but we did so with respect and compassion.

The conversation didn’t fix anything, one conversation rarely does. But my colleague, no doubt also drained would at the very least felt listened to. And it was the start of a shared exploration and journey that stands a far greater chance of delivering an outcome where this person can help themself in future.

Later in the week I’m in the exam room and a tough case comes in, so I’m asking a bucket load of open questions. How long has it been happening for? How would you describe the problem? When does it appear? … By the end of the question session I had a reasonable idea what was going on and the client had felt listened to.

I have also had the pleasure of 8 weeks of parents and in-laws living with us as the oppressive Aussie summer heat gives way to a very, very pleasant Autumn climate. I’m sure after 8 weeks, even the Dalai Lama himself would be a strain as a house guest. In the past this may have led to the build up of minor, but annoying, attritional conflict.

Sensing this was where things were heading, one evening I made the conscious decision to just ask open questions and get into a really deep listening exercise over dinner (and a couple of glasses of wine). The result was awesome, I learned a little more about my mother-in-law’s absolutely fascinating life journey that I had not heard before and had a great evening. This one conversation had a significant galvanising effect on the relationship and the rest of the time passed well.

The great things about open questions is that they allow you to learn deeply about the person on the other side of the couch. And in doing so you listen intently to what is being said. If you want to make someone feel special then just listen to them for a half hour.

Ironically, the way I meet a lot of new people is by standing on a stage and broadcasting a message for an hour or so. My mentor tells me I talk about 30% more than any of his other clients. I know it’s his polite way of telling me to shut the heck up and listen more.

So open questions (and a deep desire to learn more about the person opposite) have been very powerful tools to have mastered in helping me to get my stuff done. I’ve come a long way in medicine because of it, and my relationships are benefitting now too.

I’ll leave this journal entry with a call to action for the day. Find someone in your life to sit with over a coffee, beer, wine or water in your day today for 30 minutes.

Then ask them some open questions about how they are going and see where the vibe takes you. If your experiences are anything like mine, then I doubt you’ll find the time wasted.

Have an awesome day.

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