Are You a Knowledge Sherpa? You might be if you coach with reflective inquiry

3D image of a brain in blue on black background wiht a person's hands around it

In 1910, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey defined the practice of “reflective inquiry” in his classic book, How We Think. Dewey felt that combining the tools that provoke critical thinking with Socratic questioning would prompt a person to, “…turn a subject over in the mind, giving it serious and consecutive consideration.”

The person would then be able to distinguish what they know from what they don’t know, to confirm or negate a held belief, and substantiate the value of a fear or doubt. He said that metaphorically, reflective inquiry enables us to climb a tree in our minds. We gain a broader standpoint to see connections and faults in thinking to better assess what to do next.

Dewey was hoping to change classroom instruction to be more interactive and inquisitive. He wanted to stop the of practice dumping information into the brain, and then testing memorization skills instead of practical application. He wasn’t just advocating for teachers to ask more questions. He defined methods of inquiry that prompted students to doubt what they thought they knew in a way that would open them to expansive learning.

Questions vs Inquiry

In addition to questions, inquiry may include statements that hold up a mirror to a person’s thoughts and beliefs. Questions seek answers, inquiry provokes insight. Reflective statements include summarizing, paraphrasing, acknowledging key points and phrases the person said, and sharing what emotions and shifts they expressed.

When we use reflective statements, people hear their words, see how their beliefs form their perceptions, and face the emotions they are expressing. Then, when we follow up with a confirming question (is this true for you?) or an exploratory question (starting with who, what, when, or how to help the person dissect their thoughts), we prompt them to stop and examine their thinking.

We use reflective statements to trigger people to reflect on how they think.

Reflective statements hold up the mirror to observe what is going on in the brain. When I share with someone what I heard them say and what sounded like they most want to happen, they naturally stop and look into their words to either validate or correct my observations. As they continue to share their views about a situation, further reflections and questions can lead them to more objectively contemplate the value of their beliefs and what is getting in the way of seeing or acting on solutions to a problem. Reflective statements combined with questions prompt new thinking.

Knowledge Sherpas

In 1945, in light of Dewey’s work, Vannevar Bush predicted the emergence of a new profession of trailblazers he called Knowledge Sherpas to help people sort through their thoughts. That profession rose up in numbers 50 years later.

Today’s we call them coaches.

Why We Need Knowledge Sherpas

Adults need someone to help them think through dilemmas as much as children, and sometimes more. As we age, we become more rigid in our thinking. We become masters at rationalizing our actions, ignoring our emotions, and finding what confirms our beliefs. We don’t distance ourselves from social pressures. We’re too busy to stop and examine our beliefs and choices.

Dewey said that reflective inquiry would not only open a person to learning, but also bring to light stereotypes and biases inherited without deliberation. By bringing beliefs, assumptions, judgments, fears, needs, and conflicts of values to the surface, a person can better evaluate their decisions and actions.

Dewey said that provoking people to think about their thinking was the “single most powerful antidote to erroneous beliefs and autopilot.”

Dewey also said the most intelligent people need the most help with thinking about their thinking. Smart people are the best rationalizers. They wholeheartedly believe their reasoning and will protect their opinions as solid facts.

Even the best coach can only meet bright people half way. To be open to learning, all people must be willing to accept, or at least tolerate, uncertainty. From this place, they can deliberately contemplate the source of their thoughts and what other possibilities they might consider.

Leadership expert Hal Gregersen says unexpected shifts are always around the corner in life and business. We must go beyond the bounds of what we know. Yet our brains resist this exploration no matter how hard we try to break down why we think the way we do.

In this complex, chaotic, information overloaded world, coaching is a great resource to efficiently navigate daily dilemmas. Coaches who use reflective inquiry as defined by Dewey are Thinking Partners and Knowledge Sherpas. They help people trail blaze their brains.

Are you a Knowledge Sherpa? If so, I applaud you for not only helping people see the best way forward more clearly, you are helping to awaken minds to new worlds of possibility. How awesome!

IF YOU COACH AND LIKED (or didn’t like) THIS POST – please let me know. For the next few months, I will be sharing research and practice tips with you for my new book, Coach the Person, Not the Problem. I welcome your questions as well.


  1. Dewey, John. How We Think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process, Revised version. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, ©1998. Free downloads on Amazon created by volunteers for the Public Library.
  2. Maria Popova, “How We Think: John Dewey on the Art of Reflection and Fruitful Curiosity in an Age of Instant Opinions and Information Overload.” Brain Pickings, Aug. 2014.
  3. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct. 2011
  4. Gregersen, Hal. “Bursting the CEO Bubble” Harvard Business Review, March-April 2017, pp 76-83

41 thoughts on “Are You a Knowledge Sherpa? You might be if you coach with reflective inquiry”

  1. Excellent article…. it clarifies so many things. Loved the way you have said that coaching is for intelligent people because their brain rationalises the most ?. Excited and looking forward to your new book !

  2. Very interesting post. The difference between questions and inquiry added a new dimension.

  3. Muge Sozen Enunlu

    Loved your article Marcia, and will be following you up, towards your new book.
    Great share. Thank you

  4. Päivi Äijälä

    Thank you Marcia. Thought provoking post. Liked. I’m diving now to Dewey’s book, thanks for the link, too.

  5. Nancy Van Pelt

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Marcia. I’ve retired and for years I used the process of ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ quite often when working with groups, very large to very small. Your words stirred up my own Reflective Inquiry and opened my mind to mindfully resuming this incredible process. Can’t wait to read your next book!

  6. Thanks for this, Marcia. I try to use reflective inquiry when I coach. Would love to get better at it though. As a teacher and a coach I think people learn best when they discover something by themselves rather than being told it. Will your book be about this topic?

  7. Diane Krause-Stetson

    I have been following you and your work for almost 20 years. You have been a guide—a Sherpa—to me in various roles as a a coach and now as a business owner with 45 employees. Outsmart Your Brain was transformative and I have gifted a copy to many people over the years. Wander Woman seemed to have been published when I needed it most. Now, I await your new book on Reflective Inquiry. I want to continue to grow as a leader and to develop my management team. Sometimes the coach approach to running a business gives way to being directive in the short-term interest of expediency or exasperation. Your article reminded me of the importance of using inquiry to expand my thinking and challenge my own beliefs and assumptions, as well as my team’s, in pursuit of both personal growth and business success. Thank you.

    1. Diane, yes we have known each other for a long time! Congratulations on your position leading a big team. Thank you for the reminder that all of this applies to teams, too,

  8. Marcia, I love the insights you provide in the value and opportunities of coaching with a little history lesson to boot. It just goes to show that short and pithy writing can be transformational. Thank you!

  9. Kathleen Taylor-Gadsby

    Thank you for this post, Marcia. The value of reflective inquiry can’t be measured and I appreciate the business case you made for its impact. Who wouldn’t want to be a Knowledge Sherpa?!

  10. Marcia,
    Thought-expanding article. I loved the idea that we, as professional coaches, are “Knowledge Sherpas to help people sort through their thoughts”. Our minds are filled with muck and mire and to find clarity, focus, and to discover our own blindspots, it takes a sherpa, coach or listening/thinking partner. Can’t wait for your new book. You reliably deliver and have helped me grow. Thanks for all you do!

  11. Marcia I do enjoy and find value in all your posts. I have been coaching for a few years now and am focusing and striving to hone my skills around reflective inquiry… honestly a steep hill when you are a problem solver by nature and When in the heat of the moment with the client. Need to read this a few times over there is lots of questions the article raises in itself. I look forward to what you share next and thank you for being so open with your knowledge and experience

  12. Ranganath Srinivasan

    Thanks Marcia for a hiught provoking, wonderful share. To make people think different in a non intrusive, non threatening, supportive way, that is the core at building great relationships and transformation.

  13. Carol Harris-Fike

    Hi Marcia, Great article and love the name: “knowledge sherpas” but kinda want to change it to “wisdom sherpas”, meaning the wisdom a client may gain about themselves that leads to a new possibility, all with reflective questioning. Looking forward to your book. Thanks so much for sharing this and your research!

  14. This is a fabulous article. Marcia, you continue to be on the cutting edge of what coaching is about, even when that means looking way back to the roots of the coaching process. Reading this gave me an idea about how to tweak a presentation I will be giving next month on flourishing. Thanks.

  15. Shirley Schulz-Robinson

    thank you Marcia I really enjoyed reading this offering. Questions invite answers – inquiry promotes reflection – I intend to put this into a sign for my office. I also downloaded Dewey. My find for the week.

  16. This is an intriguing post leaving me wanting to learn more. I’ve always felt helping others find their own way through their challenges most always leads to the right solution.

  17. Catherine Hodgson

    Great article Marcia and also love the terms “Knowledge Sherpas and Wisdom Sherpas”! I’m involved with a global mentoring program and the workshop training material, so the topic of reflective inquiry does interest me. I also like your statement: “Questions seek answers, inquiry provokes insight.” Looking forward to learning more from you.

  18. Marina Alekseeva

    Questions seek answers, inquiry provokes insight. What a powerful insight! Would love to grow into inquirer rather than being just questioner. Thank you so much Marcia for sharing your powerful thoughts and experience. You truly make this world better!

  19. Love the way you always make us reexamine our thinking, Marcia! Good to get fresh ideas, and I admire the way you always do great research and create new angles from that. If you need any support, please just ask

  20. You touch on so many exciting topics of my education that never got the attention they deserved! Socratic questioning, bright people needing more coaching than others! Oh yes, this all resonates. Thank you. I am fascinated by the power of saying things out loud. How do introverts get clarity, when this extrovert first understands some thoughts when I have given voice to them 2-3 times! Coaches, in reflecting back to clients are this voice, too. And socratic questioning, through it’s infinite curiosity gives permission to say aloud ‘the impossible’ the ‘unthinkable’ and to dis-cover the barest of truths.

    1. Well said Deb. It is exciting to me, too, to see how clearly coaching works, taking out the mystique while seeing the value. Thank you for stressing the point.

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