hidden meaning…


I have been reflecting on the nature of a question.

Consider this.

You’re in a conversation with another human being. They are telling you something about their experience; you respond with a question.  It’s what we do in conversations.

The question forms, it gets uttered. It’s out there shaping the conversation.

But where does that question come from?  What prompts the thought?  What forms the thinking?  What shapes the words? And what is the question’s true intent?

We might think our questions are for the recipient; the person we throw them at.  Convinced we are adding value, we toss the question in front of their thinking stream, interrupting whatever is processing inside their head or body.  The question itself instantly demands attention.  Diverting the thinker to attend to it like a noisy impatient child.  The recipient ponders, then responds. In that moment, we, the questioner, feel good.  Our question has proved useful.  The recipient has shown their gratitude by affording our question due attention.  Clearly they have benefited.  Our question has undoubtedly furthered their thinking, developed their awareness, offered them an alternative or made it clear what the way forward is.  The question has elicited an answer and we all want answers … don’t we?

We have helped. We feel good.

But is that true?  True that we have helped?
We, the questioner, now know more, that is true.  But does the responder?

Maybe our question’s true intent was simply that? To help us to understand? To help us make meaning from the stream of consciousness our fellow human being was imparting. Maybe that is where it came from?  Its purpose to fill in our knowledge gaps so that we might better comprehend this complex, story-ridden, alien world of another human being? A veiled attempt to make sense of their situation. An unconsciously selfish intent?

And if our question’s intent is indeed to further our understanding, does that shape and inform further questions? Are we ultimately steering the conversation towards our greater understanding of the other person’s world?  Does each question take the other person further from their own path and move them on to our thinking path? Are we building a reality for them? Is our question and those that follow merely wresting control?  Shaping the collective thinking to serve our meaning making needs? Is that the intent hiding in our question?

But is that true? Is it really just about us? A selfish need to understand and relate this person’s story to our world of meaning and sense making?

Well, every question does have a presupposition embedded within it. Every question.

Our question may have suggested we were listening.  Maybe that was its intent?  Maybe the question attempts to impart a sense of caring, an ability to attend to our fellow human being’s world, their toils and struggles.  Maybe the question is grown from a desire to connect? A desire to help?  A desire to rescue even?

But is that true? Are we really that selfless?

Our question may outwardly seem to expand the speaker’s awareness, or offer them a new perspective or a fresh choice?  But where does that come from? Is it really something we are asking ourselves, inside? A question that has meaning for us in the same situation, so given its significance for us and our thinking, we offer it up.  Because if it’s of use to us, it must surely be of use to them…?

But is that true? Maybe, or maybe that too is in service of our own needs? Maybe its true purpose was to help us compare – compare ourselves to the other person? To judge. To compare how we might respond in that situation, or compare our ability to think about it with their ability?  Maybe its intent is to make a judgement, good or bad?  A judgement of ourselves, or of them?

Maybe the unwittingly selfish foundation goes deeper? Maybe this question dressed as concerned listening and helping is really about affirming our own value?  Our value in this relationship, our value in society, maybe also our very value as a human being?

Is our question masquerading as a help to our responder when in truth it is about affirmation of who we are, of our very existence? In some way the question might seem to be saying “here I am”, “I am listening”, “I hear you”, “I can help”…

But is that true?  Or could it be that our question really means “notice me”, “I am of value”, “validate me by answering my question”, “honour me as a human being.”

Meanwhile, whatever our hidden intention, our speaker’s train of thought is interrupted.

So, what lies in the foundations of our questions?  What building blocks form their true shape?

Our own need to know?
Our own need to be OK?
Our inner need to compare and judge ourselves?
Our own need for validation?
Our own need for acceptance?

What if we just kept them? They are after all ‘our questions’.
What if we kept them to ourselves?

Or… what if we stopped searching for them at all?
What if we just listened?  Without intent?

does every question..?


Does every question have a presupposition?

Well it seems that one does. It’s worded to suggest they do. It presupposes all questions, without exception. It presupposes you know what a question is, or a presupposition indeed.

Some coach colleagues and I were discussing this. Playing a game if you like. Who can come up with a question that is presupposition free? We couldn’t.

Even the simplest questions do.  For example, ‘When?’  The question presupposes you have a language for date and time. It presupposes you know what I’m talking about in relation to ‘when?’. It presupposes that I want to know, that you know, and that you want to tell me.

So if every question has a presupposition (and I welcome suggestions of ones which don’t), does that mean that we, the questioner, have a view, a plan, a judgement, a perspective even before we phrase the question? Maybe conscious, maybe outside our awareness?

Does it mean that the question is really in service of us?

The questioner’s need. Could it be that it’s about confirming our prejudice, our view as the questioner? Or could it be about filling in our gaps in knowledge, or about extending our knowing? Or about confirming our map of the world; fitting your world in, for congruence? Or about our belonging or our sense making?

We think of questions as ways in which we expand the perspective of those we throw them at, but maybe they are instead a means to reaffirm our already held perspectives?


the question is…

Steve Chapman - Can Scorpions Smoke?

A friend of mine has created a brand around the question “Can scorpions smoke?”. Steve Chapman is a creative genius who helps people think differently and explore the world with new eyes. His website is here, take a look.

His book of that name was on my desk today and the title kept catching my eye.  I wondered how silly a question can get?

Can pigeons whisper?
Can the sky tickle me?
What if wind is sucking not blowing?
Can bananas plot?
What if my eyes were on my toes?
Can water drown?
Can an itch be drawn?
Does anger like peanut butter?

Children have this wonder. As adults we lose it. Ironically education, society, organisation drive it out of us.

Yet our ability to face the world wearing a coat of possibility allows us to weather many storms. Breaking with convention, with patterned thinking, is a source of joy and creativity and possibility.

Just thinking about those few questions brought a smile to my face.  Thanks Steve.


here’s the answer, now what is the question?


I listened to the Minister for Sport this morning, Tracey Crouch.  She was describing the new government strategy for sport.

She did something it is both easy to admire and easy to despise in a politician – avoidance of the question.  She did it very well.

Essentially she was asked three points – will there be more money? How does this square with school sports field sell-off? and then, somewhat tangentially,  her view on a certain boxer and being a sports role model.

Tracey very adeptly avoided answering any of these questions whilst sounding authoritative, clear, engaging and positive.

At first I judged her.

Then on reflection it struck me that as human beings we all do that too, all the time.  We do it to ourselves. In our heads.

We give ourselves reasons why. We answer the question we have been telling ourselves is the question. Maybe we have told ourselves that for a very long time that’s the question.  We have probably been telling ourselves that’s the answer too, for just as long.  Maybe it’s a new rationale, but the same erroneous question?  The comfortable question. The familiar question. The safe answer.

But in reality we are often avoiding the real question.

Just like Tracey we spin ourselves a compelling story.

Maybe we should ask ourselves, ‘What’s the real question here?’ ‘What am I avoiding as I listen to my familiar internal dialogue?’

Let’s remove the politician in us all.

what would your big toe say?

A friend of mine once declared that to be a favourite coaching question of theirs. “What would your big toe say?”

I can’t vouch for its effectiveness as a question. Or its appropriateness.

I do like it though.

The notion of paying attention to a physical part of you fascinates me.

On occasion, when I have found it difficult to get to sleep, I focus my attention on my foot. It works. Maybe it is the sheer mundaneness of directing all my conscious attention to my foot that helps me nod off? Boring the conscious mind into submission perhaps? I pay total attention to my foot’s position. The toes, ankle, sole. To its boundaries; where it begins and ends. To any sensations I have in it, such as a slight tickle, or the feel of the sheet.

I guess my ear would do just as well, but I haven’t learned to build such a close relationship with my ear yet. Or my nose, which I suspect has its attention focused on breathing; and I am very grateful to it for that. Whereas my foot and I are on good terms. We have an understanding.

I think this is why I like the question “What would your big toe say?”

Not, you understand, because it’s a part of the foot. Rather, because it’s a part of you. A part of me. A body part playing an unfamiliar role.

Sometimes we over value the brain. We consult it constantly. We pay it too much respect arguably. Sure, it has its uses. A bit like my nose and breathing, I wouldn’t want to be without my brain. But sometimes I wonder what the rest of me thinks? What do other parts of me feel about this?

Sometimes I listen to my gut or to my heart, why not my big toe?

Try it. Next time you want another perspective,  or you’re stuck, or you just want a less busy response from yourself, ask…

“What would my big toe say about this?”

And if that doesn’t work… start a conversation with your elbow.


why do we question?

question listen silence
Some time back I facilitated a workshop during which we experimented with silence.

It’s a difficult art.

Delegates had individually completed a five minute exploration of one aspect of themselves, resulting in a few written sentences. The second part of the exercise was to pair up and share that with a colleague. The only ask I made of those listening was to say nothing. Yes, to remain fully present. Yes, to listen completely, not just for what was said, but for deeper meaning and what wasn’t being said. But to remain silent. For the full five minutes.

They were all unable to avoid asking questions. So we explored that when we came back together.

It transpired the questions were all for the benefit of the questioner. Questions to clarify the questioner’s understanding. Questions for the questioner to understand context. Questions for the questioner to compare with their own experience. Questions for the questioner to shape appropriate feedback, input, opinion. Questions for the questioner to demonstrate they were listening. Questions for the questioner to collude. Questions for the questioner to feel they were adding value, helping in some way. Questions for the questioner to demonstrate empathy.

“When does this happen?” “What have you tried?” “What happened when you…?” “Could you speak to…?” “How long has this been like this? “If you approached it this way…?” “I know what you mean, it’s hard isn’t it?” “What did they say when you did that?” “How can I help?” …

It seems we have become accustomed to ask questions for our own benefit.

Shifting focus to only ask questions for the benefit of the other person is a skill. It offers the other person a way to expand their own understanding, broaden their own awareness. It offers the other person an opportunity to explore choices, possibilities. It offers the other person the opportunity to learn, to grow.

Above and beyond this enhanced learning, to have someone be with us, solely in service of us, is rare. To have someone listen that deeply, to witness but not judge, to empathise not sympathise, can be a very connected experience. To be given space to be with our own experience is a gift, humbling and trust laden. At this level, silence becomes the deepest form of listening. The purest form of being with someone.

In many of our conversations, our human interactions, we fall into the pattern of asking questions to broaden our own understanding or to feed our own need to be useful. Questions to find solutions for the person, to be helpful and affirm our own value… to ourselves.

Seeking questions solely to broaden the speaker’s awareness offers a different way.

Be curious about the true intent behind the questions you ask.

Practice seeking questions which broaden the other person’s exploration of their own experience and to find new learning, new possibilities, new meaning for themselves. Practice too the art of silence.