‘What’ and ‘How’…

14 April, 2021

Each week, the two of us meet together as a leadership pair to share information, explore challenges and agree ways forward. As well as helping us to make decisions, our weekly exchanges also help us to stand back and take a meta-perspective, to see the bigger picture, to notice themes. During one such meeting recently, we shared our week’s work with one another and noticed a theme that we’d each been approached by various colleagues with many questions about what they should do or know. Questions in the vein of: What is the right thing to do? What do I need to learn? What is the answer to my problem?

Of course, these ‘what’ questions assume there is a right answer, that this right answer is knowable, and that this right answer is knowable by someone else. Certainly, there can be straightforward answers to some ‘what’ questions that other people can provide us with. Questions like: What do I need to eat to have a healthy diet? Or, what is the process by which snow is created? ‘What’ questions can be answered when there is knowledge about a predictable occurrence which can be generalised across time and situation.

Yet, our work with complex psychological and systemic issues is of a different nature. The most helpful step last time might not be the most helpful step this time, because there is a moving process involving many interacting parts. This stuff won’t be pinned down to a right answer to simply apply repeatedly. Given this, we reflected that we often find ourselves reframing ‘what’ questions into ‘how’ questions. From ‘what shall I do?’ to ‘how can I find a way forward?’ or ‘how can I be with things as they are?’ or ‘how can I bear not knowing what to do?’ or ‘how can I keep going and trying things out until things become clearer to me?’.

The ‘what’ we do will come and go, but the constant and sustaining knack is how to roll with the process of not knowing, how to generate possibilities, how to try things out, and how to persist. By learning how to navigate the process of life and its complexity, rather than pursuing an answer about what to do to, we can tame the beast of complexity. There seem to us to be some familiar tenants of this knack for finding ways forward with life’s complexity: Dialogue with others, including diverse perspectives, curiosity, attending to feedback, authenticity, willingness to be wrong, compassion and persistence.

So at MyST, yes, we know the ‘what’ of our psychological knowledge, of course we do. But most of our work is in creating contexts in which ourselves and others can come together to work out how to go forward. How can we work better together? How can we better understand how to help this child? How can we improve as a service? Each answer is individual to each individual situation. And as well of helping our colleagues to walk the ‘how’ path, our teams offer this possibility to our clients also. If young people and families can learn to ask ‘how’ to go forward, they can spare themselves the pain of pursuing experts to tell them ‘what is wrong’ with them; knowing that their problem may not be ‘what is wrong’ but a difficulty in working out how to respond to how things are.

Conversations arising from ‘how’ questions are lively, generative and always new. There is something in this way of being that unearths energy and interest. It opens things up rather than closes things down. It is continual discovery. It is the raft upon which we sail the seven seas.

Jen & Jael

A Gwent Partnership Board Service