Something I’ve learned in six-plus years as a life coach — as well as in observing myself! — is that we humans have a habit of asking ourselves some pretty crappy questions. Some of these questions are so automatic we might call them “default questions”.
A default question is an unhelpful question we habitually go to when we feel like things aren’t working for us.
Let me show you what I mean. A while ago I worked with a client who had recently started a new job. She’d sought out a coach because, about a month into said job, certain patterns were popping up that were making the new job look mysteriously like the job she’d left (and hated).
“Why does this always happen to me?” she asked.
Now, we could have gone there and answered that question. But “Why does this always happen to me?” was this client’s default question. In fact, when I pointed out that she’d posed it quite a few times over the course of our first session, she was unaware that she’d even said it.
That’s the thing about default questions — they’re not only unhelpful, they’re so automatic they’re outside our conscious awareness much of the time.
And yet, we create identities out of them! For my client, this identity was “the person who gives too much at work and gets way too little in return and either quits angrily or gets fired.”
Can you see how “Why does this always happen to me?” an unhelpful question? Yes, we could go there. We could eventually get somewhere by continuing to ask why. (Why? is a truly powerful question, when framed in a helpful way).
But, in this case, the question itself is making a huge assumption: that this always happens to the asker. And that can’t possibly be true.
So I didn’t go there with my client. Instead, I pointed out that the question wasn’t a great one.
And then I brought in some wondering.
I love the quality of “wonder”. It has, for me, the feeling of stepping outside to witness the glisten of just-fallen snow and the sparrow so light it lands right on top of the white sheen without making a dent.
I also love “wonder” as a verb. Did you notice how my client’s default question had a heavy undercurrent of judgment in it? That’s why default questions can be so damaging, especially when we don’t even know we’re asking them: They are almost always condemning the asker in some way.
Wondering, in contrast, is free of condemnation and full of curiosity.
One of my own default questions is “Why can’t you do this the way everyone else is doing it?” (I’m happy to say it’s no longer quite as default as it once was — sometimes I don’t go to it at all anymore, and when I do, I catch myself in it more quickly these days.)
It’s easy for me to see how this developed as a default question for me — from a very early age, there were often things I had trouble doing that “everybody else” didn’t seem to have a problem with (like playing kickball at recess).
Can you see why the question is not a helpful one? It’s got that undercurrent of judgment, and it’s also making the assumption that “everyone else” does something a “certain way” that I should certainly be doing it.
So what I’ve practiced over the years is a shift into wondering. It goes like this: Hmm … If I want to do this, I wonder how I could do it in a way that feels better to me?
Or, in the case of my client: Hmm … I wonder what it is exactly that feels really hard about your work situation right now?
When we wonder, we get to come to a situation, to ourselves, with beginner’s minds. We get to access a little of the feeling of the glisten of that fresh covering of snow. We don’t play into our well-established, age-old assumptions. We see that today is not yesterday, now is not then.
The first step here (as it so often is) is to notice our default questions. Sometimes we need someone else to catch them for us (they can be pretty sneaky) — a trusted friend, a therapist, or a coach is helpful here.
I also notice my default questions a LOT in my journal. When we actually take the time to write out what we’re thinking, we slow down our minds. We capture our thoughts in a moment of time and our default questions are forced out of their hiding places.
Do you notice yourself jumping to “default questions”? Where can you shift into wondering? I’d love to hear from you on this.
And: I will be starting a small group version of my Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program in March (the one-on-one version of the program will return as well). If you’d like to make your creative work a priority while practicing excellent self-care, and would love steady, compassionate support in the safety of a small group setting, I encourage you to apply! Details will be posted soon, but if you’d like to get on the list for more info, please contact me through the form at the bottom of my Ways We Can Work Together page, here.
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