You seem to have answers for everything, he said to me.  He was 100% right and 100% wrong at the same time.  This is a podcast about how that can be, and how you can engage with better answers. 

Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap. 

Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Welcome to you, you’re in the right place.  If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.

Before you think that this episode will be a gratuitous brag about how good I think I am wrapped up in some parable of a story, stay with me for a few minutes. 

When he said to me, ‘you seem to have answers for everything’, he WAS both right and wrong at the same time. 

He was right because to him, it did seem that I had answers for lots of the things we were talking about and working through in our coaching together.  He was wrong, because I wasn’t really giving him answers in the way that questions are usually asked, or problems are usually solved with solutions.  What I was giving him was responses.  Responses to his question, to his story, to his context. 

Responses aren’t answers.  Responses are what we do when it’s our turn, in a dialogue two or more people engage in a turn-taking exchange. Dialogue is an ancient word, very central to modern human experience, which comes from two Greek words put together: dia- translates to through, and logos translated to meaning, dialogos, or dialogue, the movement of flow of meaning through the people involved. 

You can see turn taking all the time, which isn’t dialogue. It’s more like tennis.  One person serves, another receives and returns the ball.  The object of tennis, and the object of a huge proportion of our interactions with other people, is to get to the end, to resolve the point, usually in favour of one person or the other.

I am not a fan of tennis, but I enjoy watching it with people who love tennis.  One of the most enjoyable parts of watching tennis with tennis fans, is that they LOVE it (see what I did there?), they love it when the game goes on, and on, and on.  They LOVE it when the match involves the players taking the lead off each other, because the fun of tennis is not in the winning but in keeping the game going, often for hours and hours.  For them, the essence of the game is not really to win, not really to get an answer to the question of who comes out on top, but to engage in the struggle, the contestation, the spectacle. 

When he said to me, ‘you seem to have answers for everything’, he was right in saying that I seemed to have answers for everything because most of us, most of the time, appreciate that whilst we think we want THE answer, to resolve the question, to get a solution to the problem, what we are actually looking for is a greater amount of CLARITY that we are heading in the right direction, and a level of CONFIDENCE about our ability do go where we want to go. 

I was satisfying his need to get closer to clarity, to move away from uncertainty and inaction towards certainty and action.  Clarity and confidence.  I gave him what he wanted even though he thought it was answers, he knows that I had very few answers. 

He was wrong because I wasn’t really giving him answers but engaging in the game, agreeing to dance with him once he set the tune, for both of us to get a little clearer, and he a little more confident about where he could go with the topic at hand. 

There are an infinite number of responses I can choose from.  These are not answers remember.  At the risk of giving you examples of responses which might sound like I am giving you, the listener, answers to the question of how to not give answers but responses, some of them sound a little like this:

Why is that important?

What exactly are you talking about?

What have you tried, or considered trying?

But my responses are not all questions, as people sometimes assume what coaching is all about.  Other responses sound like this:

Your described it this way (and I replay what they said)….is that a fair representation?

That’s interesting.

You seem to be saying/doing this, but not that (this is a kind of compare and contrast prompt)

I am picking up that you’ve assumed X, Y or Z (surfacing assumptions is a central part of what the fathers of organisation learning Chris Argyris and Don Schon called double loop learning)

I noticed…this about what you are saying…and I think it caught my attention because…

I sense that you are [insert the emotion I have picked up on]

I am not sure what you are saying.

I don’t know. 

(These last two are great – they are anti-answers, they literally seem like they are being unhelpful, but are some of the most helpful things I’ve said to anyone I’ve engaged in dialogue with). 

And a final few:




(you might think I’m trying to be funny now…I am not.  These last few, including the noises I make, are called continuers or encouragers – brief non-judgemental words or noises designed to do what they are called, encourage the person to continue). 

A lot of health and safety leaders come to me, to work with them and their teams, because they tried to get answers from something like a training course, or hiring a bunch of new people, or an internal project, or a new strategy, and they are struggling either because they answers aren’t clear or what they thought were answers turned out not to be. People come to me seeking the answers that they didn’t get when they expected to, so we begin the work of ANSWERING, not only seeking answers. 

He was kinda right and kinda wrong when he said to me, ‘you seem to have answers for everything’.  He felt good not because he got answers but he engaged in the co-creative process of answering the very things he brought into the dialogue to begin with.  Answering is not the same as the answer.  Answering is a verb, a doing word, it happens in the liminal space between here and there.  Answers are nouns, they are things, objects, neat, defined, packages of sweet sweet satisfaction, which are almost always wrong. 

I understand that the world around you is fast paced, time poor, and people demand answers.  I am not suggesting you become a coach, nor a philosopher like Plato.  I can confidently tell you that the sky will not fall when you respond rather than answer, and that you can still quickly and pleasantly help other people get the clarity and confidence at the heart of their search for answers, in a matter of minutes. 

I was coming to the end of my scheduled session with Sarah.  We had covered a lot of ground. She had come to find the answer to ‘how do we grow into the best safety team in our industry’. I had more responses than answers.  Sarah had wrestled with what the means, and why it was important to her. We pinned down the emotions driving her motivation for this.  She had revealed to herself that it was difficult for her team to engage in the goal, since she had not invited them to, they did not know that this was her goal.  In the final few minutes my process tends towards two things I think are important in coaching.  One is about actions, and commitments to action.  But before that, I ask a simple question.

“Has this been helpful?”

I know you are an astute listener, so will quickly realise that this is a closed question.  Many of you will have been taught that closed questions are bad for learning and dialogue, that open questions are a million times better.  I’m not going to argue, that is generally a good rule of thumb. I have asked variations of this question more times than most safety people have had breakfast.  Your well intentioned advice to me, to improve my question, might be to instead ask something like “how has this session been helpful to you?”. And you’ll see the first problem, that I’d be assuming the session had in fact been helpful. 

I have had plenty of sessions that people have said have not really been very helpful.  They are in the minority but it’s not zero.  And guess what? I don’t care what the answer is, because the response is worth it: if the session wasn’t helpful, it gives us both pause for feedback and intention setting for next time. 

But almost always, the answer is “Yes, this has been helpful”. And without missing a beat, almost always, in the same breath, they continue to reflect, out loud, why the session was helpful.  My guess is that when people spend 15 minutes, or 30 minutes, or an hour, engaged in dialogue in which they are engaged in answering, not answers, they are not limited by a closed question and don’t need permission or a cleverly worded open question to keep doing what we were doing for the past 55 minutes. 

Instead of seeking or providing answers, of trying to be an answer consumer, or an answer vending machine, people like you and I have the opportunity to instead choose how we respond, to respond in ways that are generous, empathic, and helpful, to engage in the dialogue of answering, and do it with the very people we are seeking to serve. 

I’m sure that you will have some barriers and objections to what I have shared.  I’d like to hear them.  Leave a comment over at, if you are on Apple Podcasts or Spotify the link is at the top of the description, or drop a comment on whichever social media platform you are accessing this post. 

The ball is in your court.  Shall you and I continue to play the game?

Thanks so much for listening.  Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way?


Transcript – Ep218 An answer for everything

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