Tony Robbins has said that the quality of your life is determined by the quality of the questions you ask. I couldn’t agree more. I think this is one of the most under-utilized psychological principles at your disposal. There are two types of questions: questions you ask yourself and questions you ask other people.
Questions for Myself
The questions you ask frame the debate. Take Tony’s famous question: Look at the worst thing that’s ever happened to you and ask “How is this the best thing that’s ever happened to me?” You get what you focus on, and if you’re asking “Why did this happen to me?” or “Why am I so unlucky?” you’ve already solidified your base assumption that whatever happened is bad.
That then becomes the frame of reference from which you analyze the situation. That nearly invisible choice (most people don’t even recognize that it was a choice) has massive implications in the narrative that you will tell yourself about that event. The choice of asking “Why did this terrible thing happen to me?” versus “How is this the best thing that ever happened to me?” colors the inevitable repetitive thought pattern you will exist in following any major event — good or bad.
That’s how the mind works. It replays good and bad events in a loop until you have fully digested them and put them in a permanent place in your long term memory and self-narrative.
Whether the event is stored as positive or negative, however — whether it’s framed as a destructive event or a growth opportunity — is largely based on the questions you ask yourself about that event. So choose wisely. Very, very wisely.
Here are three general questions I ask myself routinely to deal with negative situations:
1. What could I have done differently to get a better outcome?
I hate giving up control, so I always look for the things that I control in any situation. There’s always something, and those things are my levers — by focusing on the levers I could have pulled differently, I begin to paint a picture for how to find success next time. I don’t waste time thinking about what I wish the other person had done differently, because that I can’t control.
2. What skills that I don’t currently possess would have allowed me to get what I wanted out of this situation?
I find it is also useful to focus on learning. It frames any situation not as a permanent failure, but a temporary failure in my skill set. Failures of skill set can always be remedied through focused attention and effort — and those are two things we all control.
3. What lesson do I choose to learn from this failure?
There’s an awesome quote from Henry David Thoreau — “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” When something goes wrong (or right for that matter) you have to decide what you’re going to see in that.
Are you going to learn that you’re an idiot or that the world is against you, or are you going to learn that you’re amazing for having the guts to try something, but realize now that you need a new skill in your tool belt. That subtle shift will make all the difference in your life.
Questions for Others
My co-founder at Quest, Ron Penna, has always had a rabid aversion to discussing the weather. He’s essentially outlawed it at the company, and rightfully so. The weather has entered our cultural consciousness as the standard conversation starter for one reason only — it’s entirely safe and a guaranteed area of commonality.
But forget about safe. Safe isn’t interesting, nor is it memorable. I say dive right into the deep end. Instead of aiming at finding common ground as most people will advise, I say aim for insightful — with bonus points for asking people questions that they’ll be excited to answer. Here are three questions I ask during job interviews and parties alike.
1. What’s something you find utterly fascinating?
2. What’s something about you that surprises people?
3. If you woke up tomorrow with $7.4 billion, after traveling, investing the money, and giving a bunch to your family, what would you do?
What you ask, quite honestly, says as much about you, if not more, than your answers. When you ask someone a question you’re demonstrating to them what you’re interested in and what your intentions are. When meeting new people, you want to focus on questions that are upbeat and positive and that show your sincere desire to understand them better. I use the word “understand” on purpose.
Doing Impact Theory has really forced me to focus on the effects of the questions you ask and shown me that questions, far more than answers, help create clarity internally and build a bond between people.
Also, by focusing on perfecting the frame of reference of the questions you ask, you can take control of conversations with others (making them more entertaining, revealing, or memorable) and most importantly, you can begin to orchestrate the dialog in your own mind.
That’s where the real magic happens, because simply by changing the base assumptions lying beneath your questions, you can profoundly shift the angle from which you attack the problem (often times uncovering novel solutions), and create a new, and more positive lens through which to view the world. You can’t overestimate the power of asking the right questions.
For more empowering ideas and actionable tips that will help you unlock your potential, check out my interview show Impact Theory.