Recently I have been giving some thought to the Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind. Not being a real student of Buddhism, I had to look the phrase up and found it in the first sentence of a book by Shunryu Suzuki called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. That full sentence reads, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” I haven’t read the book, but the first sentence speaks volumes.

We’ve had the joy of spending quite a bit of time with our grandchildren since the first one was born twelve years ago. What could be a better model of a beginner’s mind than the curiosity and inventiveness of a small child for whom everything is new and fascinating? There is such openness and wonder and joy as they learn about all things!

Somehow we come over time to believe that it is important to be the expert and that there is something negative about asking questions and revealing that we have gaps in our knowledge — as if we could ever know everything there is to know about anything!

There are a couple of wonderful books that address this issue using different terms and I recommend both. One is Marilee Adams’ Change Your Questions Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work. The other is Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Adams describes what she calls the “learner” mind as opposed to the “judger” mind, and she emphasizes the importance of the type of questions we ask. I see the learner mind as somewhat similar to the beginner’s mind, and the judger mind as similar to the expert’s mind.

Dweck uses different terminology, but she seems to be getting at the same point. Her terms are “fixed” or “growth” mindsets, and it’s pretty clear from the terms how they relate to the Zen concepts.

I’ve learned in my coach training the vital role of curiosity in coaching. A coach approaches each client as resourceful, whole, and complete, so the coach’s job is to ask curious, open-ended questions that help the client find the answers within him/herself. Of course, there is a lot for a coach to learn about how to ask the best questions at the appropriate time, and that involves learning how to listen attentively to the client. There is also a place for sharing some knowledge that the coach may have about, for example, ADHD. But in general a coach asks curious, open-ended questions of the client in order to help the client discover the best answer from within him/herself. The coach is not an expert on the client. The client is.

So you see, there’s a special place for a beginner’s mind in coaching. I’m going to try to learn from my 8-month-old grandson!

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