The powerful self-question in midlife
As a coach I used to think that powerful questions were ‘clever’ questions you learn by rote, but a powerful question emerges from the relationship, from being there with the coachee, curious and genuinely interested in their story from their perspective. A question is only powerful when it is used in the right context and has been formed from the unique moment between coach and coachee during their coaching partnership.
This got me thinking about how someone in their mid-life could use this skill on themselves. In my previous posts I have suggested we spend more time reflecting and being mindful. This is not easy for everyone. We often do not listen to ourselves and like to be distracted from too much time alone with our thoughts, yet the powerful self-question in midlife might be just the wake up needed. So what might happen if we asked ourselves some powerful questions, and actually listened to the answer? Here I offer some reflective approaches to help you tune into your own powerful question.
A powerful question can be profound at any stage in life but here I am thinking of those who are on their journey of discovery, have lived a life where they have (I hope) been successful but may now think that they want something different. Midlife has so much opportunity in it but we can be overcome by the changes we do not ask for- health, family dependency, or career dissatisfaction. When we ask ourselves what we do want we can push through the challenges and turn them into opportunities.
The powerful question
What do I mean by a powerful question? In coaching it is the question that a coach will ask the coachee at a particular moment in time to help the coachee go beyond their loop thinking. It brings new insights to the coachee and can dramatically shift their understanding of the topic. Just a simple ‘And what would happen if you did?’ can open up new ideas and options.
The powerful-self question
There are many, many questions you can ask yourself, and if you type into a search engine the words “powerful question” you will return many websites with a list of them. By all means take a look and get inspired by what they suggest. But as I said at the start of this post, a powerful question is not just a question learned by rote, but something that emerges in the conversation at the time when it needs to be asked. For instance, here are some popular ones:
- What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
- Who are you meant to be?
- What are you avoiding?
- What one thing can you do today to be you?
A coach will be tuned into the coachee and ask the question, but when you are self-questioning then you have to spot that question all by yourself. This can be done using an informal reflective approach, or a more formal approach.
Informal – Find a quiet space where you can be undisturbed. Take a few deep breaths and focus inwards. Notice how you are feeling, notice your thoughts. Don’t try and control them. Allow the thoughts and feelings to drift around. After a few minutes, think about the topic you want to learn more about. Planning for your future? Dealing with a current issue? Bring that to your mind and allow questions to arise within you. It may take a while or you may notice lots of questions and not always find them helpful. Don’t jump on the first one that appears. Keep focusing on your breath and remain relaxed and you will know when a powerful one turns up. It will feel right and you will be curious.
Using images – If thinking about the question isn’t working, try using images or objects. Look through a magazine, or a book, or look online. Try to remain in a relaxed state and allow the images to draw you in. Or look for objects around your house and spend time with any that you want to pick up and look at more closely. Allow your mind to wander and relax and any questions that appear to be heard. Why that image or object? What do you need to know?
Formal – there are a number of techniques that train you into being more reflective, and often come with a partner to help you develop the skill. Coaching of course, but there are also books which discuss well tested techniques such as ‘More Time to Think’ (2015) by Nancy Kline, or ‘Focusing’ (2003) by Eugene Gendlin. These do need a bit more formal training or you can find someone who uses these techniques in their coaching or counselling work. These are ways to develop your meta-cognition or thinking about your own thinking.
Whether you start with just some informal moments of sitting with yourself, or you dive into something more formal, you will find that developing the skill of being with yourself and listening to those powerful questions can make a big difference in the choices that you make.
Dealing with distress
If the process at any point becomes ruminative or strong emotions occur, stop. Be kind to yourself and do something else to move your thinking away from the too difficult feelings. Sometimes it is a good idea to try again another time as the most useful questions can feel uncomfortable at first. But you will know if what you are feeling can be worked through or not. If not don’t put yourself in any risk situation and seek help. For most people you will eventually gain some deeper understanding of yourself which you can use to make informed decisions about your life.
So give it a go. Just stop, breathe, listen, and learn.
Gendlin, E. (2003). Focusing; How to gain direct access to your body’s knowledge. Rider
Kline, N. (2015). More Time to Think: The power of independent thinking. Cassell