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Pick the right question

To a great extent, self-awareness is hugely dependent on the quality of questions asked.

To a great extent, self-awareness is hugely dependent on the quality of questions asked.

“What story from your life would you offer, of a time you felt lost and found your way?”

I am often able to stop a cascade of thoughts looking at Shel Silverstein’s delightful ‘Zebra Questions’ that is tagged to my softboard.

I asked the zebra/Are you black with white stripes?/ Or white with black stripes?/ And the zebra asked me,/ Are you good with bad habits?/ Or are you bad with good habits?/ Are you noisy with quiet times?/ Or are you quiet with noisy times?/ Are you happy with some sad days?/ Or are you sad with some happy days…/ And on and on he went./ And I will never ask a Zebra/ About stripes/ Again.

Much like the zebra stumps the boy, my spiralling thoughts are stymied, each time.

It is true that we are looking for answers to questions of life, health, career, relationships or just, how to live a good life. Yet, today, I would like to focus on a bigger truth that I missed for a big part of life. That: it is the right question that will make me get to the answer that I really deserve to find. This meant that I needed someone intelligent, involved, and with enough interest in me to pose questions and listen, as I looked for an answer in the safety of their presence. This was never going to be easy, at least not frequently. Much later I realised that, in the absence of this person, when facing conflict and confusion, I can ask tough, logical, generative questions of myself to unravel a real solution.

To a great extent, self-awareness is hugely dependent on the quality of questions asked. Questions that do not carry the answer inside them, that allow for binaries to exist, that open up the space without confining or labelling a response. Let’s examine what makes a good question:

It is open ended: How are you feeling? instead of Are you feeling okay? How are you feeling allows you to explore beyond feeling-ok, It gives you enough space to confess that you may be feeling better or less than OK; it suggests no assumption on part of the listener and allows you to feel your way to the answer. Even while Are you Feeling ok is an innocent, habitual, even concerned question – the usage comes coupled with an assumption and is hence counterintuitive.

It avoids the ‘Why’: Imagine being asked: Why did you forget to send me a message? versus What made you forget to send me a message? Can you feel yourself tighten up to the first question, feeling defensive like being in an interrogation? The answer to the second will lead to a considered, undiluted response, detailing the reason and perhaps an apology. So instead of asking yourself, Why do I like it?, try asking, What do I like about it?

It ‘volunteers your experience’ and is generative: Many of us reach out to a guide, therapist or mentor expecting to be given the answer, a solution to the problem that we feel stuck in. A good mentor is a consummate listener and will invite you to speak, while they listen to your story. With gentle cues and questions, you will be encouraged to volunteer your experience (which includes your emotions around your experience). The questions emerge out of this space of fearless, unselfconscious sharing, and active listening. These are generative questions, an output of listening from the emerging field of the future. This level of listening and answering requires both to access open heart and intent — our capacity to connect to the highest future possibility that wants to emerge.

It makes you ‘introspect’: The truth in a question has to allow for the fact that we are never fully one or another. Our human condition, situation or feelings have many layers; and luckily as many words (and nuanced language) to get very close to describing it. There can indeed be nagging sadness to a moment of happiness. A question that allows for grey scales in-between black and white, that allows the possibility of a maybe, and sets off deep reflection is a good question.

As you reach out to seek deeper questions, you will start to enjoy facing questions, conversations and interviews that go beyond easy, superfluous answers, but take you into finding your uniquely personal answers.

As I finish this article, a newsletter that I subscribe to popped up in my inbox “What Story from your life would you offer, of a time you felt lost and found your way?”

The writer is an executive and life coach, mentor and writer.

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Printable version | Sep 3, 2022 8:36:45 pm |