Friday, June 18, 2010

Sitting with Questions

I am trying something new. I have a guest posting on my blog this week. I thought you might enjoy the wise musings of my friend James Richardson encouraging us to ponder questions.

Some time ago I read a very interesting account of a study done looking for differences between individuals that scored in the top 1% of IQ tests and individuals that scored way off the IQ charts and categorized as geniuses. While I cannot speak to the veracity of the story, it nonetheless will help illustrate my point. The story goes something like this…

All test candidates were placed in a private room and were given a extremely difficult problem to work on that would require them to draw upon all of their faculties if they were to solve it. Each test candidate had two hours to solve the problem. In the case of the top 1% group, they furiously worked using up most if not all of their scrap paper as they concentrated on solving the problems. The test administrators, observing behind a pane of one-way glass observed their level of activity and predicted that it was quite likely that they would solve the problem. Candidates from the ‘genius’ group, notably participating in identical conditions, were observed to be sitting idle in their test space! There was no flurry of activity with rough notes and calculations - there was seemingly no observable activity in their test rooms. The test administrators, again observing behind a pane of one-way glass worried that perhaps their IQ assessment may have been flawed or perhaps the candidates were geniuses in ways that did not suit the wicked problem before them.

Let’s fast forward to two hours later at the completion point of the test interval. What do you think the results were? As predicted, most of the top 1% group succeeded in solving the problem (although many of them looked somewhat worse for the wear) but some did not. It could be concluded that such results seem perfectly reasonable. And the ‘genius group’? Each and every one of them was able to solve the problem, and only wrote down the solution! Nothing else was written on any other pieces of paper! You can well imagine how this astounded the test administrators – especially in comparison to all of the complex calculations and notes that the other group made on their scrap paper during the same exercise. One of the ‘genius’ candidates was questioned to discern how they were capable of their amazing feat of problem solving. She was asked: “were you able to do all of your calculations and critical thinking in your head?”, to which she responded: “No. I sat with the question and waited for the solution to come to me.” This was essentially the same for all candidates in the ‘genius’ group. Fascinating.

What an interesting notion: “sitting with questions”. We work so hard on trying to find answers and trying to solve the problems that are in front of us. It can be taxing and there is a very real risk (for the majority of us that don’t find ourselves in the top 1% of IQ test scores) that we may miss something or that our ‘solution’ could itself cause unintended consequences, perhaps even further exacerbating the original problem. So what to do instead?

I have been personally exploring a practice for myself of “sitting with questions”. What I have found is that it is a very effective way in which to fully maximize the inputs from all of my sensory perceptions. What I mean is that when I decide to wait for the answer to come to me, I let my mind, my heart and my intuition wrestle with the problem/issue at hand and when there is a reasonable ‘answer’ to be provided, it shows up in my mind. To be clear, this is a practice that I employ in domains in which I feel I have sufficient knowledge, expertise and experience from which to draw upon as I would not attempt to use the practice to solve wicked theoretical physics problems – of which I have little more than a passing interest in.

Recently I was asked to facilitate and lead a high profile work out session in an organization. I met with the executive leading the charge and we had a good discussion on aspects of what the session objectives were and a number of possibilities, hopes and expectations for the session. We had 30 minutes for this discussion. At the end of the discussion, the executive asked me to prepare an agenda, design the session and lead key parts of it. Admittedly, I wasn’t 100% certain what the session would look like nor exactly what I would be doing in my role as facilitator (and teacher for a portion of it) at that very moment. Regardless, I agreed with a firm ‘yes’ I could and I would. I didn’t and still don’t see that as any form of deceit since I knew that if I ‘sat with the question’ of “how” and “what”, the right answers would come to me in time to meet my commitments with excellence. This is because: I feel that I have the knowledge of the context in which the session is situated; I have the skills and knowledge to conduct a variety of activities that will help serve the session objectives; I have experience doing both and with knowing that I usually know what I need to know by the time I need to know it. So for me, it wasn’t risky – it was the way it works for me and it was suitable to the context (executive needed an answer and I had some time prior to the session itself to ‘let it come’.)

I like sitting with questions. To me, it is allowing my full human potential to emerge. It emerges when I allow all that I am to inform all that I will do. It requires deliberateness and of course I am not able to do it in all situations for all reasons, but what if I could? What if, through ongoing practice, I could get really good at it and it came natural to me versus being deliberate?

I will finish off with one more quick story.

A Nobel prize winner is being interviewed shortly after accepting his award. The interviewer asks him: “Who is one of your most important influences that helped you achieve your Nobel prize winning work?” The Nobel laureate responded: “My mother and not for the reasons you might initially think. When I was school-age, she never asked me what I learned that day in school, her query was always: ‘what good questions did you ask today?’. That has stayed with me and is what has helped me more than anything else become what I have become in my life thus far.”

So take some time out, let all that you are have a chance to help inform all that you will do. Grab a coffee or a glass of wine and sit with a question or two. It would be interesting to hear what your experience is with it.


  1. “sitting with questions”!!! How dare you be so simple! Life is far more complex than that. You have to get some very complex methodology and technology to solve any real problem -- don't you?
    On second thought... maybe the subconscious mind has a great deal more capacity than we fear to think. After all the conscious mind often seems like the scrolling text on the computer screen, compared to the 1TB on the HD.
    It's more than just jumping to conclusions, isn't it? When we get busy we are far more likely to incorrectly define or frame the question, get in a huff, and start pulling hair.
    Come to think of it, "sitting with questions" is probably a lost art, an ancient discipline, a natural response for a person in touch with himself and his world.
    I concede. I will sit with questions. But first, I'll have to sit with "what is the question?".