The miracle question

It began as a straightforward update call as we prepared for a workshop. My client began to describe, with some exasperation and angst, the pressure on the group she’s working with and how it seemed to be paralysing them. She talked about the pace, the stress, their lack of bold ideas, poor communication… a complex spaghetti that seemed to be getting more tangled. “How can we give people more confidence? How do we make this process more human?”

She was naming symptoms and her aspiration for how things could be different, but she couldn’t see the path between them and what next step to take.

I asked if she’d like to go one step further and craft a ‘miracle question’, to leave behind the territory of the problem and set a new frame as a focus for her energy and actions. I asked her to close her eyes and imagine we were about to do something truly miraculous, something that would bring to life everything she wanted to see happen. I played back some of her words and helped her bring them to life in her imagination.

I then asked her to craft a simple question — “How can I…?” or “How could…?” — that could hold all she was imagining. “A question’s just occurred to me.” We wrote it down, played with it, noticed the words that seemed important and those that produced a reaction. She hit on a beautiful question that moved us both. We paused, sat with it. “I feel peaceful,” she said.

We shifted gear, moving back into the practical questions relating to the workshop, with a clearer sense of the objective and different language to describe it. She left the call with a proposal for her business sponsor, and with more confidence and conviction.

A ‘miracle question’ is a provocation, an invitation to leap beyond the confines of the problem

It’s useful when someone is caught in a problem, struggling to work out what intervention is needed, or has a sense that the ‘real’ issue lies elsewhere. These are all clues we’re faced with something systemic and need to

free ourselves from the constraints of linear thinking.

A ‘miracle question’ often names the underlying ‘truth’ of a situation, the deeper, less obvious thing that emerges when we give space to our intuition and insight.

I notice people tend to go still and relax when we start to formulate a question; agitation slows and stops. If you give space to the pauses, you can see the insights emerge, like bubbles rising.

It’s hard to name a dream

There are more tender stories, too.

It seems like such a simple act, the crafting of a question, but it’s sensitive. It can be hard for people to name a dream, as if by saying it out loud they might vanish the possibility.

Last week, a coaching client saw a story about herself that’s different from the well-thumbed version she carries with her. She saw strength, resourcefulness and determination, the freedom to leap into the future without fear. She went quiet, cried a little. And then the old story asserted itself, “I couldn’t really be like that.”

But she can and she will because she is already. The question isn’t all that’s needed, but it’s a step on the path. She can’t ‘un-know’ that new story or ‘un-have’ the experience of it.

The miracle isn’t the creation of something new but the shift in our sense of what’s possible.

“It’s such a breakthrough, seeing myself in such a positive light.”

I help people think and act systemically based on the science of how complex systems work and evolve. Email me at lycia.harper@glowconsulting.com

Addendum: “What does a miracle question look like?”

I was asked this question in response to this post. Here’s my answer.

They tend to be simple questions, in straightforward language. People typically present with a more complex, conceptual question and we want to get underneath this to the root of what’s important. When we arrive at a good question, it will feel different.

A miracle question can cover anything in terms of content — don’t be constrained! — and it will be specific to that person’s context and situation. One client’s question, “How can I find my ideal job?”, seems dry but it was a huge idea to her that this was even a possibility — “My *ideal* job? Really? I can have that?”

Like this one, miracle questions are often an expression of something fundamentally important like our purpose and place, being acknowledged, belonging. What does it mean to have an *ideal* job? It means it fits you, that what you do is significant, that you are making a meaningful contribution.

Don’t be surprised if the question you arrive at is not obviously related to the issue as it first presented; this is characteristic of systemic work. One client presented with a dilemma about a contract. It took us a few minutes of exploring and testing various questions until he suddenly came up with, “How can I connect with people who excite and resource me?” His face lit up and I knew we’d arrived at a good question. His exploration of it is proving fruitful, inspiring and even a little magical.