Three wrong questions to ask
(And the Right Ones to Replace Them With)
The insights we gain and the conclusions we draw are determined by the questions we ask.
If we ask the wrong questions, we can never get useful answers.
As Edwin H. Friedman puts it in his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,
“In the search for the solution to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response.”
With this in mind, here are a few common limiting questions that should be replaced to glean broader, better, more useful answers:
Wrong question #1: “Is this true?”
This one is particularly prevalent in religion, where “truth” is debated vigorously and constantly.
Don’t misunderstand me; finding and living according to truth is critical and we should all be devoted to doing so. The challenge is that there are simply too many things we don’t know — and in fact, can’t know.
You’ve probably heard the parable of the six blind men who all touched an elephant for the first time.
The first man, who touched the elephant’s leg, said, “The elephant is like a pillar.”
“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“No, it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk.
“It is like a big fan,” said the fourth man who touched the ear.
“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly.
“It is like a solid pipe,” said the sixth man who touched the tusk.
They argued and argued, each one insisting he was right and the others were wrong.
Truth is like this; we all touch parts of it and have our versions of it. We argue over who is right and who is wrong.
But when the dust has settled from all the arguments, only one thing really matters:
Replacement question: “Does this make me happy?”
What we’re all searching for is happiness — deep and lasting joy, versus fleeting pleasure. Happiness is the fruit of truth; find happiness and you have found truth. Since happiness can be personally experienced, it’s easier to work with than abstract truth.
For example: What does God look like, exactly?
I don’t know and I don’t care. What I know and care about is that when I pray, I’m happier.
See the difference?
In many cases, the search for truth can actually be a distraction from what really matters. We can quote scriptures and debate what God looks like until the cows come home, and all the while miss the real point.
I can’t prove to anyone that monogamy is “truth.” But I personally know that the joy in my marriage is strengthened and deepened as I am 100 percent faithful to my wife in thought, word, and deed.
“Is this true?” is too often the question of pharisaical fundamentalists. By virtue of the question itself, it creates a hard narrow-mindedness that misguides us.
“Does this make me happy?” expands our thinking while helping us focus on what’s really important. And it does so without casting aside all standards and opening the door to rationalization.
In other words, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t do whatever we feel like and pretend that it makes us truly, deeply happy. Happiness is like a compass — it always points in one direction. We can veer off course all we want, but the compass always stays true.
Wrong question #2: “How could I be so stupid?”
This is the question we commonly ask when we act against conscience and violate our values and standards. Another variation: “What’s wrong with me?”
While it’s good to check ourselves, this question is full of judgment and shame, which prevent us from seeing the real truth. The default, subconscious conclusion we’re drawing is that we acted that way because we are bad.
But nothing could be further from reality.
Replacement question: “What needs was I trying to meet?”
The needs themselves are legitimate and good; meeting our needs is what makes us happy. We don’t act wrongly because we are fundamentally bad, but rather because we’re not conscious and skillful about the ways in which we attempt to meet our needs.
By judging and shaming ourselves, we simply cover up the real needs and make it even more difficult to ever meet them.
Marshall Rosenberg, the world-changing creator of Non-Violent Communication, tells the story of visiting with a man in prison who had molested several children. Marshall asked him why he acted this way.
“Because I’m an evil man, and that’s all you need to know about me,” the man spat out belligerently.
“I don’t believe that,” Marshall said patiently. He worked with him for a long time to find the real underlying needs.
Finally it came out. The man, softened and in tears, said, “I do it because I desperately need someone to understand how it felt for me when it happened to me as a child.”
His underlying need was pure and beautiful: empathy. His actions, however, didn’t meet his needs and created a lot of pain for himself and others.
By judging and shaming himself, he could never get to the real need and thus could never transform by figuring out ways to legitimately meet the need.
Our actions may not be as extreme and hurtful as this man’s, but it is the same for all of us at every level. Judgment and shame are not useful at all; they conceal our real needs, thus preventing us from ever meeting them and stopping our unskillful behavior that causes suffering for ourselves and others.
Meeting our needs becomes simple once we identify them — but we can’t identify them under layers of shame.
Wrong question #3: “What am I lacking?”
This is the question we ask when we’re stuck in life and can’t find a way out of our rut. We see other people succeeding and wonder what they have that we don’t.
We think something is wrong with us, that we’re deficient, inadequate, and broken, or at the very least that we’re lacking some critical knowledge or skill to progress. We look outside of ourselves for answers and breakthroughs.
The truth is quite the opposite.
Replacement question: “How can I access, activate, and unleash what’s already inside me?”
Just as the acorn possesses everything to become an oak, so too do we possess everything we need to become our best selves.
We aren’t lacking anything. Wverything we need to progress and reach our full potential is already inside us. Our task is not to “improve” or “fix” or ourselves from external sources, but rather to activate our internal greatness.
It’s like the story of the beggar who sat on a chest for years begging for money, until one day a man opened the chest and showed him that it was full of gold.
By asking the right question, we start looking to the right source and find the treasure that has always been inside us.
Most often, what’s keeping us stuck is simply asking the wrong questions. When we start asking the right questions, we experience quantum breakthroughs.