Ready for a science joke?
“A farmer was having a mysterious problem that was killing all of his chickens. To get to the bottom of it, he hired a biologist, chemist, and physicist to get to the root of his problem. After their analyses, they report back to the farmer.
The Biologist tells him, “I have performed many biological, genetic, and serologic assays on your chickens, and I cannot find any abnormalities.”
The Chemist tells him, “I have performed many metabolic, toxicologic, and chemical assays on your chickens, and I cannot find any abnormalities.”
The Physicist then chimes in, “I know what is killing your chickens and have a solution. Assuming spherical chickens in a vacuum…”
(Thanks to @F1000 for the blog full of laughs!)
The gift of diverse perspectives
I’ve had a birds-eye view of how different disciplines think by running peer-coaching for academics for more than ten years. If you’ve never tried this before it works by setting up mixed discipline groups who support each other with real-world and real-time challenges. Each person in the group has time to share a problem and have their thinking about it provoked by thoughtful questions from the others. No answers or suggestions are given. It’s a powerful way of developing coaching skills and supporting people with the thorny issues that hold their work back.
As time has gone on I’ve become more and more fascinated by the particular value of being in a coaching group with people from other disciplines. In any group each person’s world-view frames the way they take in information, conceptualise it and ask questions about it. Each of us filter what others say through our unique lenses, informed by our experiences, beliefs, values and training. We see dangers, inequalities and opportunities as what we hear resonates with our own understanding of the world.
In an interdisciplinary group it becomes more obvious how discipline-thinking is part of our own filter. This is most apparent in the way people frame questions for each other. Hearing questions from many different viewpoints is such a gift, so here are ten powerful questions academics ask each other; I invite you to try them on yourself. Some may be familiar to you, probably those most aligned with your own world view, others may seem left-field and give you a real catalyst for thinking differently.
Ten powerful questions to provoke your own thinking…
1. What story are you telling yourself here? (English and History)
Such a cracking question from academics with a keen awareness of narrative (how we put ‘facts’ together to tell a particular story). Ask yourself this question right now and you’ll feel how challenging it can be! We are usually emotionally invested in our stories and quite convinced that they are true. By gently reminding ourselves that we can tell a different story if we choose to, we can start to see the roles we have cast for others, and ourselves and think of alternative plotlines to the one currently in play…
2. What is the next step of the process? (Engineering)
OK so not all Engineers think the same, but process thinking does commonly feature in questions from Engineers. It might sound obvious to some, but for others re-conceptualising a potential solution as a process can be revelatory. There is something quite liberating about seeing the answer as a work in progress and not an instant solution.
3. What other variables are there in this equation? (Mathematics and Physics)
Looking for unconsidered variables is a beautifully scientific way of exploring where your blind spots might be. This is a question that asks you to pan out from your laser focus and think what else could be impacting on the challenge in front of you. I just love the idea that if you get all your variables into the equation you can make it balance. So foreign to me, but so appealing!
4. What’s the context for that person? (Ethnography)
None of us exist contextless. Yet we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of others purely in the role in which we encounter them. We all have families, multiple roles, histories and experiences which shape us. Very often this is a difficult question to answer, which prompts us to get to know the people involved and understand where they are coming from.
5. Where are you in the eco-system? (Ecology and Biology)
A powerful reminder that people, events and organisations are all part of a much bigger and integrated picture. This metaphor helps people to see how different things are related and explore where they might find symbiosis. It can also be a great question for those trying to effect change as it reveals what forces may be pushing back to maintain homeostasis.
6. What is the counter argument? (Law)
This simple question invites the person to offer a compelling logic for the ‘other side’ of an argument. It can help people to weigh up pros and cons and to separate out the emotional and rational aspects of different positions that they hold.
7. What do you mean when you say ‘stressed’? (Languages)
Linguists are such an asset to a multidisciplinary group. They hear the nuance in language and seek to understand it. They tend not to assume and therefore ask questions that help us to articulate our own implicit assumptions.
8. What’s happening at a molecular level? (Life Sciences)
This question invites an objective view of a situation and a ‘zooming in’ to the detail and interplay between elements. The molecular metaphor means more to some than others and can open up a whole new level of understanding for those who can run with the metaphor in more depth. A good example of where discipline-similarity can be very fruitful.
9. How would you describe the symptoms of this? (Medical)
Separating symptoms from causes can be very helpful for coachees trying to disentangle complex situations. Being given time to ‘tell the doctor’ about the symptoms (and suffering) can also be therapeutic in itself. The challenge for the clinical coaches is allowing the coachee to diagnose and self-prescribe…
10. Why is this a problem? (Philosophy)
Ah philosophers. While linguists invite us to become more aware of our words, philosophers demand that we are more conscious of our thinking. This is my favourite question on the list. When I ask it of myself it often leads to a clearer, deeper understanding of what is troubling me and sometimes, joyfully, makes me realise there isn’t actually a problem at all. Bonus.
Mixing it up
Coaching is a dance. To really help the coachee to understand their challenges and access their own solutions we follow their lead. However there are times when the coachee is dancing in circles or down a blind alley and needs a new lead. This is when a question from a totally different discipline can reset, reframe and open up a novel line of thinking. The practice of peer coaching develops participants’ skill in supporting others without creating dependency and is invaluable for those leading across many boundaries.