© Andrew Watt

What not why: going to the heart of the matter

I once spoke with a client who was frustrated that a proposal he had put forward was being treated sceptically by his boss. He was doubly frustrated and hurt as the scepticism seemed to come from a suspicion that he was motivated by personal reasons rather than the best interests of the company. The focus of the conversation had switched from what he was proposing to why he was proposing it.

As a result, things were degenerating into a passive aggressive exchange about motives. He was also now doubting his boss’s motives and was developing theories that these resulted from a combination of personal weakness and a landgrab for further power. He’d discussed and refined these theories in conversations with others and had even begun to invest rather heavily in them as a validation of a number of other grievances he had about the relationship.

Another executive had got involved and the starting point of the coaching conversation was to ask how he could bypass that person and circumvent the (malign) advice he felt they would be giving to his boss about his proposal. All rather tortuous and complex but by no means unusual.

This isn’t what we talked about in coaching though. We talked about his proposal of how how to change operationally to help the company as it flipped from one strategic model to another. Although he fully supported the switch, he believed some continuity was appropriate during the transition hence his recommendations.

Furthermore, on talking it through he realised that the change he was proposing would be just as necessary in the long term as the short term. The issues were less about continuity during a period of change than about ongoing leadership and good management. This was because he saw that the new model couldn’t be applied in a cookie-cutter fashion but needed some tweaking and optimisation. This was important but hadn’t been seen until now and certainly hadn’t been discussed back in the office.

During this conversation his understanding of the situation was becoming more complex and clear. We were exploring “the things themselves” rather than indulging the mini-soap opera that questioned everyone’s motives. We were looking at the heart of the matter or in technical language the noema.

Searching for what’s true is an ongoing journey of enquiry rather than a destination where all is understood; the truth is always out of reach. However, the more time we spend enquiring into what it is – again “the things themselves” – the more we reveal about it.

A key principle of narrative coaching is that to describe something is to change it.

The thing that had been going on in the office, the “real issue”, had been the question of motivation, or rather speculation about motivation. This is a quite different thing. In fact, in my language it’s not a thing at all it’s a noesis, an interpretation that raises the question of why, rather than what. Often the noesis makes implicit and simplistic assumptions about the noema. It’s quite clear that what’s being proposed is misguided, leave that be and speculate on why it’s being proposed given this self-evident (non) truth. And that enquiry can then create its own momentum with the potential for collateral damage as wrong decisions are potentially made for what seem like the right reasons.

In summary, interpretations, questions about “why”, have the potential to distract attention and effort away from the matters of actual substance.

How did this client use the concepts of noema and noesis to successfully press the case for his proposal? Back at the office, he ignored the comments and inferences he heard about why and went deeply into what. They discussed the background and assumptions he was making about the transition and how he modelled it. They discussed the best long term solution as well as the best short term fix. His boss was disabused of her suspicion that the recommendation was about opposing and blocking the change in strategy because they were discussing together how to implement it more successfully. And the more they discussed how to make it a success, the further questions about motivation receded and eventually slipped out of mind.

Why is it that we’re often drawn to the interpretation rather than the thing? That’s a deep question, the short answer is that it’s human nature. A longer one can be found in The Enigma of Reason by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, which argues that our process of reasoning is primarily about social relationships, reputation and influence rather than about problem solving.

The important thing to understand is that it’s a very powerful and human pull. The best way to tug against this natural drift is to speak about our ideas to another person, especially if they’re going to encourage us to get to the heart of the matter rather than to speculate around the edges. That’s why this sort of enquiry occurs so often in coaching.

Of course, there are colleagues who plot against one another and we’re not all paranoid when we consider that possibility. But there is the noesis that we ourselves overlay on things which can stem from a lot more than the things themselves.

Finally, isn’t it supposed to be the other way round? “Why not what“ has been Simon Sinek’s hugely popular mantra. Yes, when trying to influence and lead someone in a particular direction, a good why, a good interpretation, a good noesis can be more persuasive than the thing itself. But in our internal dialogue and in trying to understand ourselves, the last thing we want is spin.

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