I have not read A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I know there is a point where a character asks what’s the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and receives a response of 42. The answer was certainly not what anyone was expecting, but it was an answer. Much of science is like the answer 42. We ask grand questions of nature and receive answers we didn’t quite expect and can’t always make sense of.
In The Book of Why
Judea Pearl writes, “Nature is like a genie that answers exactly the question we pose, not necessarily the one we intend to ask.”
We learn by making observations about the world. We can make predictions about what we think will happen given certain conditions and we can develop and test hypotheses, but the answers we get may not be answers to the questions we intended to ask. I frequently listen to the Don’t Panic Geocast
and the hosts often talk about scientific studies that go awry because of some unexpected interaction between lights, between an experimental set-up and the sun, or because an animal happened to have messed with equipment in the field. Real results are generated, but they don’t always mean what we think they do on first look. The hosts have a frequent line that, “any instrument can be a thermometer,”
to note how subtle changes in temperature can cause misleading noise in the data.
Pearl’s quote is meant to demonstrate how challenging science can be and why so much of science has taken such a long time to develop. Humans have often thought they were receiving answers to the questions they were asking, only to find out that nature was answering a different question, not the one the scientists thought they had asked. Pearl states that randomness has been one of the ways that we have gotten past nature, but writes about how counter-intuitive randomized controlled trials were when first developed. No one realized that the right question had to be asked through experimental set-ups that involved randomness. On the benefits of randomness he writes, “first, it eliminates confounder bias (it asks Nature the right question). Second, it enables the researcher to quantify his uncertainty.”
In the book, Pearl takes observations and statistical methods combined with causal insights to a level that is honestly beyond my comprehension. What is important to note, however, is that nature is not obligated to answer the questions we intend to ask. It answers questions exactly as we pose them, influenced by seemingly irrelevant factors in our experimental design. The first answer we get may not be very reliable, but randomness and statistical methods, combined as Pearl would advocate, with a solid understanding of causality, can helps us better pose our questions to nature, to be more confident that the responses we get answer the questions we meant to ask.
In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier helps us see what makes a good coach. The key lesson that he shares with us is that a good coach does more listening than talking, something that seems to cut against our ideas of coaching in the United States. Good coaches, according to Bungay Stanier, don’t hog all of the speaking time. In the United States, our vision of a good coach is someone who has an anecdote for every situation with instructions and life lessons baked in. They are always talking, always telling everyone where their problem is and how to fix it. While this is the kind of coach we see in movies Bungay Stanier explains that this is not the kind of coach that we actually want and is not the kind of coach that will help us grow and improve. If we want to be good coaches, we need to learn that listening rather than advice and direction giving can be the most powerful tool in a coaches box, and that the standard vision of a coach is not as helpful as we may believe.
Bungay Stanier writes, “when you’re asking questions you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. that’s called “empowering”). Put like that it doesn’t sound like a good offer.” I know for myself, whether I think about a sports coach, a business coach, or even a life coach, I picture some wise person who can tell me what to think and tell me what to look out for, but when I think about Bungay Stanier’s ideas of what a coach is (particularly a life or professional coach) I see a more impactful coach. A strong coach helps you discover solutions and approaches to challenges that work for you. They help you grow and develop by helping you learn, become more self aware, and solidify your often tangled and jumbled thoughts.
Good coaches ask questions because it forces the person they are working with to think deeply and try to find their own answers. Giving advice is good and providing direction is helpful, but Bungay Stanier would argue that nudging an individual and asking them questions helps them grow in ways that simply telling them does not. When we respond to questions we think more deeply about our past, our goals, and what has or has not worked for us. We think about ways we could approach things differently or try new solutions. Telling someone something directly just gives them one point of view, and not necessarily the point of view that will help them the most based on their own history and experience. What listening and asking questions does is empower the other person to solve their own problems and learn more about themselves and the options at hand.
Michael Bungay Stanier starts one of the chapters in his book The Coaching Habit with a quote from Jonas Salk, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.” This quote is fitting because Bungay Stanier’s premise in The Coaching Habit is that as coaches we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, giving advice, or filling up all the meeting time doing the talking. What he suggests we should do more of as coaches is let other people talk while we focus on asking more questions and listening. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask further probing questions.
Asking more questions is not just about constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe the situation more fully to identify what they believe they could have done differently in a given situation to get a better outcome. The individual you are working with is the expert in their life, even if they don’t know it. You, no matter how well you know the other person, are not truly an expert in their life and any advice or direction that you provide will necessarily be short sighted and leave out important factors.
I recently read Robin Hanson’s The Elephant In The Brain in which he argues that much of human behavior is guided by motivations and agendas that we keep secret, even to ourselves. Our behaviors are shaped by goals and desires that we don’t necessarily want to share with others because they are self-serving and potentially break with social norms. If we assume that everyone is acting based on self-interest and hidden motivations at least part of the time, then we have to assume that as coaches we don’t always know the best answer to another’s problem. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their true motivations and build self-awareness. It would be defeating to try to force and individual to state their hidden motive, so we should not question it too relentlessly, but we should help kick start the other person’s introspection.
Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person better understand themselves. You giving advice does not help the other person because it is advice and direction coming from your limited perspective. A better approach is to ask questions that help expand the scope of consideration and perception for the other person. Your answers are incomplete and don’t lead to growth and development, whereas probing questions force the other person to be more considerate and help them grow and improve future behaviors.