Always ask questions

Small children ask endless questions. ‘Why does the moon stay in the sky?’ ‘Why do I have to eat broccoli?’ ‘Where do birds sleep?’ As we get older we stop asking as many questions, we get complacent about the wonders of the world, and awkward at the idea of making a fuss.

When I became a director on a Multi-Academy Trust Board I was told to actively ask questions, to challenge what I was told, not to simply go along with it. Now I find that having been told to questioning in one area, I have become questioning in other areas. This is not simply being difficult, but more a case of not just accepting what is laid down in front of you. I realise how easy it is to be accepting of what you are told, and not to question it.

There are so many areas where it is easy to go along with what other people have told you. From the ‘this farrier is great’ comments, to the ‘don’t buy a horse from that dealer,’ ones. The world is full of endless opinions that we should question. You don’t need to go round treating everyone as though you are in a board meeting (you would rapidly lose friends!) but it is worth just keeping in mind.

It is wise to simply raise the question in your mind, ‘if the farrier is so good, why is horse always lame?’ or finding out that the dealer had refused to sell a horse to that individual because they didn’t deem it a good match. We all slant the world with our own version of reality, so all comments will always be from that person’s perception, our challenge is to not always take that at face value, but just do a mental check.

Most people will try and offer you the best advice, most people are generally kind about others, but it is sensible to always remember to maintain a questioning mind, so that you reduce the risk of slipping into the complacency of never questioning what you are told.

The difference between sympathy and empathy

Someone has fallen down a well. Sympathy stands above the well and calls down: “How awful! I’m so sorry for you!” Empathy climbs down into the well and says: “It’s dark down here, that must be hard for you.” Indifference says: “I don’t have a well. That will never happen to me.”

Strikes a chord? How many times have we turned to someone for support but not elicited the response we had hoped for, and ended up feeling hurt. Often this is unintentional. Empathy is tricky, but like many things it is a skill, and it can be learned, improved on and mastered. Empathy, is one of the reasons that we search around for other people who have had the same experiences as we had, so that they “get it”. Don’t get me wrong, sympathy is a million times preferable to indifference, but if you can master it, empathy is the skill to aspire towards. I use the “well” scenario if I need guidance with how to react to someone else’s distress or problem.

Imagine that you are struggling to load your horse. Frustrated by your efforts, you turn to someone on your yard. You could get a variety of responses.

“Well my horse loads.”

“How awful.”

“It’s difficult when horses don’t load, I have had one that didn’t load. That must be a concern for you.”

Which response is the best? The third one! If you then want advice turn to that person.

Remember that this applies the other way round, so if someone comes to you with a problem, try and respond with empathy. Even if, to you, their problem seems small, or easily solvable, simply responding to someone with kindness and empathy can go a long way towards making that person feel supported and heard.