Ask the right questions

by Jack on March 2010

The quality of your life experience depends intimately on the questions that you ask yourself regularly.

In an earlier post, I discussed some methods that you could use to eliminate habitual negative thought patterns. These frameworks – the Sedona Method and The Work – both consist of sets of focused questions that you direct at those negative thoughts or emotions in order to let them go.

Other self-directed therapeutic approaches, such as the sentence completion exercises presented in the book Six Pillars of Self Esteem, by Nathaniel Branden, are very similar. The questions used in all of these approaches are open-ended, self-directed, and serve to assist your mind in creating your own answers to its apparent problems, and thus to let go of upsetting or self-defeating mental habits.

In general, the questions that you habitually ask yourself can be viewed as a specialized – and highly important – subset of your overall patterns of thought.

A specific example may make this more clear. Suppose you are in a important situation and you make an error. For example, imagine that you misunderstand a colleague at work and wind up missing a deadline, causing your company to lose a significant contract. Afterward, you would likely ask questions of yourself about the situation and what happened.

When you ask negative questions like “why am I so bad at my job?” or “why do I always screw up?” you’re essentially daring your mind to come up with some kind of answers, no matter how dubious. And like a good servant, your mind will reflect back to you exactly what you ask for. “Why are you so bad at this? Well, let’s see – you’re not really well prepared, your parents screwed you up emotionally, and you aren’t too smart either.”

On the other hand, when you ask kinder and more reasonable questions like “how can I improve my results in the future?” or “what would I do differently if I repeated this experience?” you challenge your mind to answer those questions instead.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that when you pose the latter (positive) kind of questions to yourself, you are far more likely to move yourself in the direction of a positive mood and a higher level of creativity, than if you were to pose the former (negative) kind of questions.

Questions act as guideposts for the mind’s unconscious operations – that is, for all your involuntary thoughts. You are always automatically and subconsciously answering the questions that are most prominent in your mind. Therefore, if you program your mind with better questions, you can generate more creative thought, create more positive moods, and increase your mental resilience in the face of challenging situations.

In fact, a great deal of personal development and coaching work is based on answering very specific and focused questions about foundational areas of your life such as values and goals. When you reach a high level of clarity about where you are now and where you intend to go in the future, you’ll know it. Why? Because you will have asked and answered a great many highly focused, penetrating questions about yourself and about the things that matter most to you.

Key traits of good questions include the following:

Empowering. Good questions seek to identify specific actions that you can take in response to a situation, rather than to assign blame or to administer punishment for things that happened in the past. In this way, instead of generating a feeling of weakness and defeat in the face of challenges, they create within you a feeling of agency and power.

Growth-oriented. Good questions help you understand how you can grow and improve from an experience, rather than seeking to “prove” something about your alleged innate qualities or characteristics. Such questions are characteristic of a “growth mindset”, as opposed to a “fixed mindset”. According to the work of psychologist Carol Dweck and collaborators, a person who has cultivated a growth mindset views outcomes as the results of actions taken, rather than as the results of innate, unchanging qualities. A growth mindset is associated with better performance on thinking-related tasks, greater creativity, and higher levels of happiness and lower stress.

Affirmative. Even a positively-oriented and encouraging question can be phrased in a negative way. For example, the question “how can I avoid being late to work?” may sound fine at first – it’s aimed at setting up a good habit and will probably encourage some creative thinking. It’s also not judgmental or critical. However, it could still be reframed as “how can I best arrive on time or early to work?”. That changes it from a question about avoiding negative outcomes, to one about seeking positive outcomes.

Specific actions that you can take in order to shift your habitual self-questioning in a positive direction include the following:

Memorize intelligent questions. It’s valuable to have good questions immediately at hand, rather than to try to create them on the fly in a situation of stress. One easy and low-tech way to do this is to create a deck of index cards (i.e. flash cards), with one question per card. A couple of times a day, read through your deck of cards and ask the questions of yourself. This can be a very powerful technique for shifting your self-questioning habits in a more empowering direction. Over time, you can let go of questions that no longer feel relevant to your situation, and add in questions that are more immediately applicable. You can maintain a balanced portfolio of highly specific questions and abstract “big picture” questions. It’s easy to try a lot of different approaches and determine what works best for you. In this way, your deck can remain useful, personalized, and relevant as your life situation changes.

Write freely. You can come up with new questions that are custom tailored to your situation through the process of free writing. In her book The Artists’ Way, the writer Julia Cameron recommends a technique that she calls morning pages. The idea of this is that you write (or type) three pages of fast, free-form writing about anything that you want. It doesn’t have to be a journal, it doesn’t have to be fiction or non-fiction, or anything in particular. It doesn’t even have to be grammatically correct – speed is more important than correctness or organization. It’s simply a way of priming the creative pump and activating your imagination while bypassing the internal censors and critics that might be inclined to shoot down interesting (but strange or unexpected) ideas in their earliest forms. In this process, you can easily direct the flow of your writing to create new questions that are certain to help guide you in the future.

When you change the questions that you habitually ask within your mind, you change the whole spectrum of answers that you permit yourself to explore. Good questions open up a constellation of creative answers that bad questions can’t even begin to touch. By programming your mind with positive, empowering questions to yourself, you stack the deck in your favor and put the power of your imagination to work in all areas of your life.


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Thank you!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura March 27, 2010 at 04:39

Hi, Jack! What an excellent post! Coming from my field of communication, I can certainly attest to the power of language to co-create realities. Our minds are so powerful and asking good questions can transform the quality of your life. I’ll share the 1 question that gets me turned around instantly whenever I’m feeling sad, or frustrated: What do I need to do to feel better RIGHT now? Usually it’s something simple like getting a drink of water, looking at the sky, changing my environment. And, btw, I’m a huge Julia Cameron fan!


Jack March 27, 2010 at 16:53

Thanks Laura! That’s a great question as well because it’s timely and empowering and really gets to the heart of the situation. (Hmm, “timely” is yet another characteristic of good self-directed questions 🙂 – no sense in asking questions that are applicable to the distant past or future!) So often we feel like we’ll be happy “when X happens”, for some difficult, complicated thing X, when in fact that internal state is potentially accessible to us through something much simpler.


Nacho Jordi March 29, 2010 at 13:46

Great post, I agree with all your suggestions. I still remember my astonishment the first time I heard saying “opportunities for improvement” instead of “defects” (yeah, pretty basic, I know, but I belong to a very little assertive culture). This kind of carefulness with words does count, as its repeated practice has an effect in our neural circuitry, and thus, in perceptions themselves.
I recently wrote a post on this kind of rephrasing ( The sentences are well known in conflict solving, but they can also be used for self development.


Jack March 29, 2010 at 18:26

Thanks Nacho! These kinds of changes in phrasing may seem very subtle but I think they can cause powerful changes in our habits of thought.


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