The power of “I wonder” + small group coaching in 2017

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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.

Above image © Creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Curiosity … and decluttering!

cat in grass

I’ve been focused on two concepts for the past several weeks and today as I did my morning pages, I found myself writing about what a difference this focus has made.

The first:

Curiosity, not judgment.

I’ve had a longstanding, automatic habit of feeling discomfort or dissatisfaction about some area of my life and immediately jumping to judging myself for feeling that way. Then my mind dives into the past and starts finding evidence for all the ways I’ve made poor choices to get me to where I am today. So not helpful.

Over the past several years (particularly since going through coach training with Martha Beck), I’ve learned more and more how just getting really curious about what’s going on for me is WAY more effective than judging it.

When I judge myself (or some part of my life), I create a war. The judging voice says, “How could you have created this situation? What were you thinking?” And another part of me shouts back, “Hey! Stop judging me! I hate you!

Curiosity shifts that. Curiosity is neutral. Actually — curiosity is playful.

I love the curiosity my cat exhibits on a daily basis. It’s so much a part of him. He’s curious about his surroundings, checking them out literally every day as though they are completely new to him, even though he never leaves the same 900 or so square feet. Hey, what’s in this corner over here? Holy field mouse, it’s a dust bunny! How did this get here? How fun is this? I’m playing with it, now!

I like to take that kind of playful curiosity and apply it to the places I’m feeling stuck. Hmm … what’s going on here? What’s really going on here? Is this situation really like that one ten years ago? Or am I actually a different person than I was then, who has a larger range of choices? Hmm …

And so on. Curiosity takes the charge out of judgment and allows me to breathe, reframe, and see all my options.

The second thing I’m focused on lately is decluttering.

I have a deep, deep fear of loss of any kind. And I tend to get attached to objects, very attached. So for the past few weeks, I’ve committed to putting a bag of stuff together to donate every Sunday. I drop it into a donation box on my way to the grocery on Sunday mornings.

This has felt so good. I started small with this — one or two items — and it felt so amazing to let go of things that I’ve worked my way up to lots and lots of stuff.

My only rule has been that if I’m really hesitant to let go of something, I’m not yet ready to let go of it.

Frequently, what I’m not ready to let go of one week, I’m ready to let go of the next week. Fascinating, right? I can let go more quickly by not forcing myself to let go. Good to know!

And that’s it for today. Hope you’re having a beautiful weekend full of curiosity and play.

Speaking of which, I have a guest blog post on Jenna Avery’s wonderful site this week, about how I’m learning to finish my novel drafts, after years of getting stuck, and how awareness and curiosity figured into that process.  If you struggle to finish any project, I hope you’ll head over and take a look!

Image is “Cat in Grass” © Genarosilva | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Practicing Reverent Curiosity

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“Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way’, an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world.” — John Gardner

On Thanksgiving Day, I was hit with a bad cold. I spent two days pretending the cold wasn’t actually there and that I could go on functioning as if I were well. By the third day, I had to admit that I really was sick — and this meant I had to let go of my need for that thing I fondly call “momentum.”

I like the feeling of momentum. I like the idea that I am moving forward. The trouble comes in when I start to believe I can truly control exactly how things move.

When I returned to working on my novel after being sick, I felt disconnected from what I really wanted to say, at a loss with the story. My characters seemed like they were doing silly things, just marking time, moving around the rooms of my pages for no purpose.

Yesterday, during a group writing sprint with other members of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle, I went to the page with the same feeling of stuckness and confusion about my story that I’ve had lately. “This is terrible!” a familiar voice inside me piped up. “You have to get over this! You need to make this story work!” (No pressure, or anything.)

When, as a coach, I work with a client who’s stuck, I often use metaphor to help them see their situation clearly. I asked for a helpful image to come to me, and the image that bubbled up in my mind was my cat, when we have a vet visit scheduled and he’s caught on to the fact that the cat carrier has entered the room. Once he gets under the bed, my mission is impossible: he knows he can hide there from me as long as he wants, because I can’t physically pick up the bed and get him out. And we’ve certainly had incidents where I’ve chased him around the house, and sometimes I end up standing the cat carrier on its end and stuffing him into it while he braces his back legs on its sides and writhes furiously. I hate this. And, of course, so does he.

There was this one time, though, when my cat snuck under the bed and I just didn’t have it in me to figure out a way to get him out and stuff him into the cat carrier. I set the carrier on the floor in the living room and sat down in a chair. I called the vet and told them we probably weren’t going to make it to our appointment.

The vet’s assistant was completely laidback about this. “Come on in if you catch him,” she said, laughing.

I sat quietly in my chair. Really, chasing my cat just didn’t seem worth it. He wasn’t ill; it was just a routine check-up since he’s getting into his senior years.

Within fifteen minutes, my cat emerged from beneath the bed and tentatively walked into the living room. He saw me sitting in the chair, looking quite harmless; he approached the cat carrier and sniffed at it. Then he began to investigate the carrier very thoroughly, with a kind of reverent curiosity. It was like he wanted to fully understand this instrument of his impending doom.

I realized that I was treating my story the way I treat my cat when I just want to get him to the damn vet. I stuff him into a box and endure his plaintive meows, feeling like a world-class jerk. Because I want to fix things. Because I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Because I’m driven by a kind of urgency.

Obviously, sometimes my cat needs to go to the vet and we do engage in this routine (though I’ve gotten quieter and better at doing sneak attacks, so neither of us struggle as much these days — usually).

But does this pattern work with my novel, with my characters?

I was stuck and overwhelmed because I was invested in the idea that my story needed to be “fixed,” that it contained a problem that needed to be solved. There are certainly plenty of books and advice out there that can tell me how to “fix my novel problem.” And some of them can be very helpful, at certain points in the process. But I realized yesterday that approaching my story in this top-down way, as if it was something I could fix from the outside by forcing it into a box of my choosing, was disconnecting me from anything the story had to show me, from letting it reveal itself.

When I sat back, relaxed, and made the choice to approach my story with that reverent curiosity my cat is so good at, I discovered a fascinating thing: I got really interested in my story again. I wasn’t trying to make it be, or do, anything; I was just interested in it. That all-important question, “What is it about?” welled up in me, and I realized I knew exactly what it was about. I also realized that this novel does not want to be as long as I’ve been thinking it should be. It just might want to be a novella. It knows what it is; and I’ve been so set on “fixing it” that I’ve lost touch with the thread that connects one scene to the next.

My story started to move again. I wrote beyond the 0ne-hour set time of the group sprint, I was so caught up in it.  Hallelujah! I understand my story better. And why did I get into this writing in the first place, if not to better understand?

Can I approach my life, too, from this space of reverent curiosity? Can I step back, breathe for a moment, and give my life the space and kind attention it needs in order to be what it wants to be?

Work With Me: I love helping writers and artists who are feeling stuck. Check out my one-on-one coaching, here.

Image is “Wonder Cat” © Eden Daniel | Dreamstime.com