The practice: powerful questions How to disrupt and stimulate creative thinking and create cheetah pauses in the classroom and in meetings.
Over the past few months I have been doing a lot of training work on the art of having difficult conversations. Indeed it’s been a resonant topic in the parent space also, with educators and parent groups wanting to create supportive forums around how to talk to children and teens about the war in the Ukraine. (You may be interested in the recent podcast I did on this topic with Marina Fogle on ‘The Parent Hood’ https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-art-of-having-difficult-conversations/id1296197387?i=1000553175238 ) One topic that keeps coming back in these sessions on having difficult conversations is the question of how to prepare – and lots of anxiety about what to say. And the more I have these conversations with individuals and groups, the more I come back to the sense that how we show up is more important: what we ask and how we listen in order to gain traction in difficult conversations – or indeed conversations where we are seeking change. And let’s face it. A lot of what we are doing as educators is seeking change in the bread-and-butter of our jobs. We want the kids who enter our classroom to leave the room, having moved further on in their understanding, their confidence, we want growth, improvement, and progress in their learning. And some are with us on that journey, some aren’t or can’t be…So how can we show up in ways that are going to have more traction to influence towards growth, and change?
What is it that we generally are aiming for in a difficult conversation? Or when covering tricky ground in class?
• To address a problem or a difference of opinion when the stakes are high.
• To understand the other person and ensure they understand you.
• To hold a person, or a group accountable for something that is meaningful.
• To request a change
• To come together and collaboratively create repair or improvement in the way you operate around a common purpose.
• To end well, having created a clear and improved path forward.
What is it we are often aiming for in the classroom?
• Active engagement with a topic (often something new)
• Reflective interaction, and momentum in the development of understanding of the material in the pupils…aka learning!
• Attentiveness and accountability – they are bringing their focus!
• Real-time understanding of what has clearly landed and where you need to circle back to make the material accessible.
One tool to achieve these aims, is looking at the quality and approach we take to questioning. This was something absolutely crucial to my training as a coach, and fundamental to my practice as a professional coach. And to be honest, my questioning skills are really what I am paid for. To help my client see things in a new light. To generate those a-ha moments. How do you know when you’ve asked a good question? Go on…have a ponder…what happens?
For me, what I notice, is that the other person stops to think. The question lands. There’s an intake of breath and the world seems to slow around that question. It’s a disruptor to the well-worn narratives or cognitive biases. Momentarily, they are in the topic, but intriguingly somehow slightly out of their comfort zone with it. They might say ‘Oh, that’s a good question’, or ‘I’ve never thought of it like that…’ And the key thing here is to avoid INTRUDING…because here’s the thing about good questioning skills. Now you’ve created the space for thinking…don’t mess it up with verbiage…rephrasing, justifications for the question, conversational fillers. No! Zip it! Let the silence do the work. Wait, and listen. Powerful questions are disruptors. They create fresh thinking. Like a good brew, let the thinking percolate.
You know what it’s like when you’re trying to exploit that sweet spot with younger kids who are eager to please and rushing to answer…they just need to learn how to create Viktor Frankl’s gap between the question and their response to answer a little more thoughtfully. In a difficult conversation, or in a learning interaction, you are seeking change, disruption of assumptions. So having those cheetah pauses in your lesson or conversation where the mind slows to consider and potentially change direction is where the traction lies. Fun fact: Cheetahs are great hunters not only because they are fast, but because they can decelerate quickly too and therefore change direction in a twisting, turning chase. So the essence of the powerful question is that it creates a cognitive cheetah pause for the brain to switch from System 1 thinking (to borrow from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow) to System 2 thinking…more accurate, slower, reflective, creative, problem-solving mode where learning and change takes place.
Powerful questioning: the skill Powerful questions are generated by system 2 thinking. This is why quite often if I am coaching Heads, CEOs, leaders in advance of a difficult presentation or meeting, we focus on key questions first. When I was undergoing my coaching training and still working part time as an English teacher, I used to focus my planning on up to 3 key questions per lesson and this transformed the impact of my work with groups. Especially at A Level. And I would pace a lesson around the cheetah pause concept to enable all group members – including introverted, less confident speakers to engage with these focal points of discussion:
- Share the question.
- Pupils note it down and unpack it and develop an initial response on their own in silence. (Harnessing the essence of learning from Susan Cain’s work on introverts in Quiet: that introverts thrive on quiet thinking space to be able to move into the speaking space, and extroverts need practice to move more deeply into thinking space away from their default to speaking space.)
- Pupils to share their initial ideas in pairs / small groups.
- Responses sought by teacher in a blend of spotlighting or developing momentum from voluntary start-ups to the discussion, gradually widening the circle of discussion around the powerful question.
What are powerful questions?
• Pivot points in a conversation
• Full of possibility and expansiveness– inviting reflection, creativity, insight. (Non-directional).
• Provocative, courageous, curious.
• Forward-looking, disrupting complaining or ruminatory narratives.
The resonant metaphor I remember in my coaching training with Co-Active was that powerful questions are like a flashlight showing a way ahead… Examples: What do you want? What are you learning? What changes? What is important to you here? What now? What’s next? What are your choices? What is it like when…(eg you waste your time) What are you here to do? What are you resisting? What does success look like? What if you do? What if you don’t?
Build your mental musculature around powerful questions.Practice – planning lessons and meetings around powerful questions.Experiment. Have practice conversations with people where you have 10 minutes where you are only allowed to ask powerful questions, nothing else! You may like to do this by prior arrangement with a friend or colleague, and then gradually move into using the skills informally.Then reflect on the challenges you felt, the impact, the learning…Enjoy! And anything to add? Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in training for your team, individual coaching.Let me know how this article resonates, how you get on with the practice, and whether there are any other topics you’re interested in for future newsletters. I always reply and am always happy to hear from readers.As always, with love and gratitude – and now spring in our steps!Emma.