Excerpted with permission from The Power of the Second Question by Chris Skellett

Several years ago I was visited by the father of a good friend of mine. He used to be my family doctor when I was a child, but it was a retired, kindly figure in his late eighties who approached me, leaning heavily on a walking stick and cupping one hand behind his ear to hear me speak.

On shaking my hand firmly, he fixed me with a steely eye and asked, ‘Chris, what have you been doing since I saw you last?’

‘Well,’ I replied proudly, ‘for the last 25 years I’ve been working as a clinical psychologist.’

‘Good Lord,’ he replied, ‘And over all that time, what have you learned about people?’

I was totally stumped for a reply! The daunting size of the question completely overwhelmed me. In 25 years of clinical practice, I had never stopped to think about this. No one had ever asked me such a question before and I had never stopped to ask the question of myself.

A whole range of useless comments sprang to mind, but essentially I was totally ill-equipped to offer Dr Foster any significant wisdom from my accumulated experience. Despite many years of incredible conversations with a huge range of thoughtful clients, I had never stopped to distill my key insights or to collect my broader thoughts about what I had learned.

Dr Foster’s Good Question gave me the initial impetus to write this book. It was the start of a thoughtful, integrative period of my life where I started to value the wisdom of my experience, and to use it as a powerful companion to my knowledge and formal training. I also realized that good therapy is not really about giving wise advice, but instead providing clients with the opportunity to find their own ‘simple truths’, and to gain fundamental shifts in perspective that help them move forward. In short, my role essentially was to ask them good, thought-provoking questions.

More importantly, I also realized that we don’t need to be in therapy to reflect usefully upon our lives. For all of us, the habit of asking ourselves good, penetrating questions is an essential part of living life well. The Power of the Second Question gives you the opportunity to do just that.

The power of a second question

Let’s look more closely at the role of these expansive questions that can elicit profound ‘aha’ moments. We call them ‘second questions’ because they usually follow on from a series of factual questions that simply exchange information. Second questions are qualitatively different from the more frequently asked factual questions. They provide an extra dimension to a conversation. They lift us up. They open a door. They are usually big picture, conceptual questions that require the respondent to pause and consider before they reply. They make us think more expansively, often on topics that we haven’t previously considered, and they challenge us to declare a personal wisdom.

Practical examples of second questions in action

In Therapy

Clinical psychologists, psychotherapists and counselors are all adept at using good questions to elicit ‘aha’ moments. They are taught to create ‘transformational’ insights in their clients in this way.

As a therapist, you know when you’ve asked a good question in a therapy conversation. There’s a thoughtful pause from the client, a moment of reflection, and possibly a deep sigh before they provide a simple, often profound response. The answer often reveals a dramatic and fundamental change in their world view. Once they experience this change, possibilities open up to explore new ways of thinking and of overcoming problems.

Examples of these broad insights might be:

  • I’m looking back. I need to look forward.
  • I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor.

In therapy, clients learn to reconceptualise their situation in a way that empowers them and leads them forward. A new truth arrives that dramatically transforms their world view. It usually arrives after about half an hour of apparently idle chat and in response to a good question.

In Celebrity Interviews

We can also see the power of a good question when watching celebrity interviews on television. A film star might be being interviewed about their latest movie. They might be asked about what it’s like to live in Hollywood. Or what it’s like to work with a certain petulant co-star. And then, almost without fail, the interviewer will ask a powerful second question.

The conversation will seem to shift gear. The interviewer will pause and collect themselves before asking something more ‘big picture’ or something more abstract. They will ask an overarching question that invites the respondent to share an insight and the question usually elicits a surprising degree of wisdom from the interviewee.

For example, they may ask: ‘Overall, what do you think is the key quality of a good actor?’

Again we see the pause, the sigh and the moment of reflection before a simple truth is revealed.

The reply might be that ‘It’s all about the ability to connect with the audience,’ or ‘It’s all about being authentic, and truly believing in the character.’

It was the power of the second question that drew the wisdom from them.

Different actors will answer the question differently, but at the end of the day, they will each be offering their personal wisdom about the industry. They will be offering a subjective truth that tells us more about them as people. And of greater interest here, we can see that they may not even have been aware of their wisdom until they spoke it.

In the Classroom

Good teachers do not simply teach facts; they also ask good questions. Telling children what the three main functions of a river are is both useful and informative, but asking them to think about what the three main functions of a river might be will add significantly to the process. By asking good questions, the children are encouraged to think critically, encouraged to ‘own’ their answers, and also to access internalized wisdom that they perhaps didn’t even realize they had.

Their answers are based on a broader consideration of life than simply the topic in hand. They are obliged to pull up from the detail and to draw upon their experiences in life so far. They look for general rules drawn from the wider world, and then apply them to a specific question. They are obliged to look within themselves for their personal wisdom.

In Business Consulting

A landscape gardening consultant recently visited my daughter Lucy and her husband to help plan a garden for their new home. Initially the consultant asked a series of practical questions about the garden, inquiring about the dimensions, soil type and gradient. Then she suddenly shifted gear. ‘And what is the key image that you’re looking for in your garden?’ she asked. ‘How would you describe the garden that you want to own?’

The whole tone of the conversation had dramatically changed. She was now asking them second questions. They were suddenly obliged to look deep within themselves to find the answers. They’d expected to be told how it was going be. Instead, they were being asked how they’d like it to be. An enforced period of surprisingly thoughtful and empowering reflection ensued.

Asking Second Questions of Yourself

For you to become more aware of who you are and what you stand for, there needs to be an opportunity to reflect thoughtfully on yourself. The challenge is to pull together all of your subjective wisdom into a simple framework that highlights your key learnings and empowers you. Essentially, to know yourself better.

Self-reflection is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It occurs when we drive, when we lie in the bath or as we wait for a bus or an appointment. These enforced moments of ‘time out’ in our busy lives provide wonderful opportunities to briefly reflect upon ourselves. We can pull up from the business of responding to the immediate demands of the day and instead consider the bigger picture. ‘What am I doing?’ ‘Where am I going?’ And to clarify what’s really important to us.

The problem with these fleeting opportunities is that they are usually interrupted by mundane events, and they rarely bring us to a satisfying conclusion or to a nuggety ‘truth’. Unstructured self-reflection tends to be an exercise in worrying away at an issue, rather like a dog with a bone. Our minds go round and round without being led systematically to a concluding insight. We indulge in the activity of reflection without achieving a satisfying outcome. We tend to simply drift.

Often our personal reflections are based on a current worry (financial, health or work-related) and we simply ruminate endlessly about the facts. It is only when we discuss our worry with someone and have a structured conversation that we can move on. Hopefully our confidante will ask us good ‘second questions’ to help us start thinking.

For example, the accountant might ask us what our spending priorities are, the doctor might ask us what we need to change about our lives in order to improve our health and the boss might ask us what would make our work life more rewarding. These questions all lift up the conversation from the plain facts and prompt big picture reflection, helping you come up with an action plan based on an ‘aha’ moment.

The Power of the Second Question will help you to start thinking about your own second questions, and how you can find a greater depth and sense of fulfillment in life. Not only will this self-wisdom enrich your own life, but it will also help you elicit wisdom in those around you. You can learn how to invite children, partners, colleagues and friends to access their own wisdom, and to become more thoughtful and self-aware. In effect, you will learn how to lift up the level of conceptual awareness in others by inviting them to share a broader perspective with you.

Asking second questions of others is the absolute foundation of good teaching, good mentoring and good parenting. It is a hugely affirming skill that correlates highly with maturity and wisdom.

Dr Foster asked me a powerful second question during his visit to me. He obliged me to stop and to think conceptually about what I had learned in my professional life so far. He forced me to pause and to reflect on my key learnings. And when we are invited to lift up our thinking in this way, we are essentially being shown a fascinating pathway towards increased self-awareness.

It’s a challenging path, but one that is well worth exploring.

Note from Bob:  “Asking the Second Question” is absolutely the most powerful new “Leading With Questions” skill that I have sought to develop in the past 12 months.  I am now using it in almost every conversation I have!  

ChrisSkellett Head ShotChris Skellett has worked for 35 years as a clinical psychologist and leadership coach in New Zealand. He has recently written two personal development books: When Happiness is not Enough- Balancing Pleasure and Achievement in your Life and The Power of the Second Question- Finding simple Truths for Complex Lives. This gives structured exercises to help the reader to understand who they are, where they are going, and what they have learned about life.

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