Touchstones are our operating guidelines for holding the meaningful conversations of inner work and trust building. In all my interviews, three touchstones stood out as the keys leaders have come to use when facing challenges: resisting the urgency to fix or save others, turning to wonder when the going gets rough, and asking open, honest questions.
No Fixing, Saving, Advising, or Correcting Each Other
This touchstone rests on the premise that our true self knows best. Leaders (and elders, bosses, spouses, siblings, and friends) often feel expected to have all the answers. This is one of the hardest guidelines to follow no matter what the role or job title because we are conditioned to believe that we are being helpful when we offer each other advice. But aren’t leaders supposed to fix, save, advise, and correct their team, peers, and even their bosses? This touchstone doesn’t mean avoiding giving advice when it is definitely needed. Good leaders point their team in a direction where they can find answers, and also instill the belief that team members have the gifts and capacity to make good decisions the leaders will support.
When the Going Gets Rough, Turn to Wonder
If you feel judgmental or defensive in the midst of an interaction, pause long enough to ask yourself, I wonder what brought her to this belief? I wonder what he’s feeling right now? I wonder what my reaction teaches me about myself? This practice allows you to set aside judgment to listen to others—and to yourself—with compassionate inquiry.
Some leaders say they prefer to ponder their own reaction first, which is vital to cultivating deeper self-awareness and owning their reactions. In the heat of the moment during a discussion, however, it might serve the conversation to simply turn to wonder about the other person’s reaction so that you intentionally set aside judgment and stay present enough to listen.
“Turning to wonder” is a way of offering grace to another, of allowing for moments when they’re not at their best. By wondering what’s going on inside someone else, you can be generous with another. You can give leeway when a casual remark stings like an insult, even if delivered without harmful intention or not even directed at you. And it encourages a sense of reciprocity when you can expect this same treatment from your colleagues on your own hard days.
This leads to the next touchstone…
Practice Asking Open, Honest Questions
Instead of offering advice or holding on to wonder so long that it becomes unproductive, you can seek understanding. Open, honest questions are ones you cannot possibly know the answer to in advance. They are meant to elicit insights, to help people gain self-awareness and clarity to inform their course of action. Such questions are a powerful form of companionship and transformation. At work you might ask, for instance, Why do you see this problem this way? Why is the solution you’re proposing a good one?
The best questions come out of deep listening. When you’re in a conversation with somebody who’s struggling with something, try to think of it like this: What’s a question I could ask right now that is, to the best of my ability, in service of this other person and what he or she is struggling with?
The Power of Beneficial Curiosity
Setting aside judgment and remaining curious create a growth mindset. Realizing that some situations are not yours to fix results in more patience and perspective. You can at least ask yourself, What can I learn from all this? And when you can access a calmness to proceed, you can also access more generative questions. You can stay engaged in the challenge without giving up. Rather than either-or polarized choices, a third way can emerge.
A certain story kept coming across my awareness that seems to reinforce the value of beneficial curiosity, especially in troubled times. Do you know the legend of Perceval and the Fisher King? (There are many versions.) Perceval is a young man who grew up hearing tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. When he is finally old enough, he goes to the castle hoping to become one of the brave knights. But times had changed, and the glory days were gone. The king was injured in the groin and thus unable to procreate, and he had fallen into deep despair. Without the bright leader, the kingdom also fell into ruin. Perceval wants to ask the king what’s wrong, but he doesn’t want to be rude, so he goes to bed without saying a word. He wakes up and finds that the kingdom is deserted. Perceval leaves, setting out on his own quest for the grail. He comes to find out that if he had asked the question, the king could have been healed.
Years later, Perceval returns and finds the old king alone on the riverbank fishing. This time Perceval asks the question, What ails thee? A spell is broken, and instantly the king and the kingdom are restored to health. (Fairy tales do cut to the chase.)
I learned that Perceval’s name comes from the phrase “pierce the valley” and represents the concept of piercing through polarities, past the dyad of one and two, and across the threshold to three—the triad, the triangle, the structure that creates space. The triad gives us a beginning, middle, and end; dawn, noon, dusk; past, present, future; input, output, throughput; fight, flight, fortify.
Perceval’s story confirms both the importance of asking good questions and the consequence of the unasked question. But it also speaks of the journey each person must take to become aware of self and of others. Leadership is being able to find the way through. Perceval represents what we can see discover if we are willing to remain curious. Begin with two questions: not only “What ails thee?” but also “What makes your heart sing?”