inner voice

A still, small voice

We have a freshman in college, and as most freshman parents, we attended a parent orientation when we dropped our daughter off in August.

The auditorium was packed with parents, some with students in tow, and across the front of the room were arrayed about a dozen staff members of the college. It turned out that they were representatives of each division of the college—campus safety, counseling, advising, health care, dorm life, social life etc.

Each rep gave a five-minute spiel about their area, and each ended with, “If your student has questions about…, I’m the person that can help with the answer.”

pixabay quietMost  memorable was one of the deans, who spoke kindly but unflinchingly about the task before us. “You are about to leave your child with us for most of the next four years. Many of you have probably done a lot of troubleshooting for them in the past 18 years. Some of you have probably strayed into the arena of ‘helicopter parenting’ and gone on to solve all their problems and resolve all their disputes, making their way a little too easy. My job is to tell you that you must let go now.

“When your child call you with questions and problems, you have one job, and that is to ask two questions and two questions only: 1. What do you want to do about this? And 2. Who at the college can help you work through this?

“That’s it. That’s your only job now.”

Phew. Tough love for a lot of parents I know!

We’ve laughed about her calling parents out in this way…and used it several times over the last month, mostly in jest, as our daughter is navigating college with strength and grace (most of the time?), and most texts that sound like a crisis brewing are followed by one that says, “Just spoke with my [advisor/professor/RA/TA/etc.], and everything is taken care of.”

I’ve been reflecting, though, that these are truly two of the most powerful questions a parent, a manager/boss, and a coach can ask:

  1. What do you want to do?
  2. And who can help you?

I love that the first question tosses our dilemma back at us—I’ve noticed that most people just want to be told what to do:

  • What should I eat?
  • Should I take supplements?
  • Do I need to do a detox?
  • What supplements should I take?
  • How should I work out?
  • How much should I be sleeping?
  • How should I be parenting?
  • …?

One of the hardest things to do as a coach is to refrain from giving advice—because I’ve generally got plenty!—and instead gently lead clients away from instinct (a hard-wired, knee-jerk reaction) and rationalization (a completely mental exercise) to intuition (more a subliminal processing of information that is too complex for rational thought).

How often do we listen to that “still, small voice” inside us?

I recently read a friend’s post on Facebook about her issue with the self-help industry: she believes one reason the self-help industry cannot help in the long term is that it doesn’t address the root cause of an issue but rather the symptoms of an issue (being overweight, being in debt, etc.). As a Christian, she feels that the self-help industry’s  advice is often to find a way to care for/love yourself, which is the opposite of the surrender Jesus asks of his followers.

Her point is certainly valid for the branch of the self-help industry that dispenses prescriptions for diets and detoxes, supplements and silver bullets, workouts and woo—which is not really self-help, is it?

pixabay listenI would suggest it is not so valid for those health and life coaches who do help us dig for and poke at root causes: we may not like the process because we’re so much more comfortable seeking solutions outside ourselves, but it’s an attempt to get us back in touch with our intuition, our own sense of what is right for us.

I’m a Syncretist with a Christian background, and this exchange on Facebook made me dig out my Bible (okay, I went online) to find the place where “the still, small voice” appears. And yes, obviously, this is the Old Testament, which many Christians feel has been to an extent replaced by the New, and yet it’s worth a read:

[B]ehold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11–13)

The voice first asks a question. And I seem to recall from my New Testament class that Jesus sure asked a lot of questions, too, and not easy-to-answer ones.

Now, a still, small voice can certainly tell us to surrender—and I’m suggesting that the danger lies in making it prescriptive.

My point is: what is your still, small voice suggesting?

What would happen if you were to stop looking in the winds and earthquakes and fires outside yourself for the answers and sat on your hands before reacting from lizard-brained instinct? How is your intuition asking you to respond to your situation?

pixabay listen to your heartIn other words,

  1. What do you want to do?
  2. And who can help you? (Note it doesn’t say do it for you or tell you what to do.)

At the nonprofit where I contract as a grants and reports consultant, we often giggle about the phrase “a high level of comfort with ambiguity” (it’s a long story), and yet, it’s a very interesting concept. How comfortable are we with ambiguity, with sitting with the questions rather than jumping to answers, with waiting for our intuition to lead the way?

It’s a muscle I’ve been strengthening myself, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts, which you can drop in the comments below or email to me.


  1. Marine Yanikian-Sutton

    I’m a firm believer that we need a little of both. We do need to sit on our hands and surrender, let the questions float out there and then, dig in and create actionable steps that we can use to rectify the situation. Just like teaching can’t be prescriptive, and doctor’s definitely can’t be prescriptive…. life itself has to incorporate an amalgamation of numerous methods.

    1. Elizabeth Baker

      Well said—it’s like that prayer about knowing the difference, isn’t it?

  2. Velenda Sparkman

    This has been very helpful to me in my situation right now. Today I learned I am going to have to grow up and drop asking others what I need to do. What do I want to Do? Who can help Me? I need to answer these two questions.

    1. Elizabeth Baker

      I’m glad it was helpful! I’ve found them to be wonderful questions in most situations I encounter….

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