In the introduction to Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, author Marilee Adams writes:
“Questions open our minds, our eyes, and our hearts. With our questions we learn, connect, and create. We are smarter, more productive, and able to get better results. We shift our orientation from fixed opinions and easy answers to curiosity, thoughtful questions, and open-minded conversations, lighting the way to collaboration, exploration, discovery, and innovation. I have a vision of workplaces and a society—of individuals, families, organizations, and communities—that are vibrant with the spirit of inquiry and possibility.”
She goes on to explore this via a fictional account of Ben Knight, whose career is hitting the rocks, and it looks like his marriage of less than one year might be doing the same. Thanks to a coach called Joseph, he switches from looking for the right answers to seeking better questions. I don’t think it’s a massive spoiler to say that this shift in perspective transforms both his job and his relationship.
Like many modern parables, Change Your Questions isn’t going to win prizes for literary lyricism any time soon, but it does convey an important message that is very much in alignment with my exploration of leadership for uncertain times like these. Old-style, authoritarian leaders considered facts and arrived at answers. New-style (or “teal”) leaders ask questions in order to unlock the intelligence of the team. Question Thinking (QT) is a system of tools for transforming thinking, action, and results through skilful question-asking—questions we ask ourselves as well as those we ask others.
“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” – Eugene Ionesco
According to Arnold Toynbee, civilisations fail when they start to believe that the same old winning formula can be applied to new problems. Past successes blinker their approach to the current reality. But, as Marshall Goldsmith pithily puts it in his eponymous book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, at some point, the old approaches stop working, and stubbornly persevering in using them leads to collapse, individual and/or societal. It seems that asking questions rather than leaping to find answers could get us out of this bind.
The crux of the matter is to adopt an attitude of curiosity, rather than leaping to conclusions. Carol Dweck might call this adopting a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. Riane Eisler might call it a partnership paradigm rather than a dominator paradigm. When you’re in “judging” mode, there is an arrogant implication that you know best and hence, by implication, others don’t.
“The clues that I was in Judger were in my own moods and attitudes, which I’ve learned to associate with Judger— self-righteousness, arrogance, superiority, and defensiveness.”
When you switch into Learner, you open the door to co-creation and synergy, creating the possibility of working with others such that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Everybody feels more engaged and empowered, and creativity is unleashed. The dynamic evolves from the zero-sum game of a power struggle into the spirit of being fellow travellers on a journey into the unknown.
“Change your questions, change your thinking. Change your thinking, change your results. If only for a second, you become an observer watching a movie of your life. You simply notice whatever moods, thoughts, and behaviours are going on, without interpretation or judgment. That mindfulness sets the stage for just accepting what is, which also sets the stage for change, for choosing the mindset you’re going to operate from.”
Not only does the Judger mindset have adverse impacts on our relationship with others, it can also have adverse impacts on our relationship with ourselves. You can probably think of judgemental people in your life. Chances are, you don’t particularly like being around them. But have compassion for them too, because whatever judgement they show towards you, they probably show 10x towards themselves.
“Judger has two faces, one being judgmental toward ourselves, the other being judgmental toward others. The results can look quite different, but they come from that same judgmental, critical place in our thinking.”
Just to be clear, we do all judge. It’s human nature. When we meet somebody new, we quickly arrive at an initial assessment about their character, trustworthiness, likeability. The point is not to mistake judgement for truth.
Also, there is a difference between judgement and discernment. Once we get to know that person better, we might find that there are aspects of their character that we don’t feel particularly comfortable with. (No doubt Jeffrey Epstein was very charismatic on first acquaintance, but….) We may then wisely choose not to have anything to do with them. Judgement in this context is no bad thing, and it is known as discernment.
When I look at the divides that have riven many of our societies recently – Remainers vs Brexiteers, Democrats vs Republicans, the divides based on race, religion, region, and so on – I see so much judgement, so much “them and us”, so much disgust. Any comment that includes the words “these people” is coming straight from judgement. And that just creates more of the same.
“Learner begets Learner. And Judger begets Judger.”
So what would happen if we got curious, and went from Judger to Learner? What if we asked questions to understand better why people feel as they feel, believe as they believe? We’d probably find that we have a lot more in common than we think. We could defuse this conflict, and start to heal the wounds.
There is a danger – that I’m guessing I’m not the only one to have fallen into this – that we believe the latest book we read really is the answer to all that ails the world. But Question Thinking really does have power – the power to heal division, and maybe even the power to save civilisation as we know it.
What questions are you going to ask today?
TEDxStroudWomen is gathering momentum. That’s not me giving a TED Talk (in fact, as curator of the event I am not allowed to speak, so will be keeping my mouth shut, other than emcee-ing the event). It’s our TEDx committee having a recce at the Sub Rooms in Stroud yesterday, checking out the lighting, sound, and stage setup. Jerry the techie found a TEDx logo to project onto the screen, and suddenly it all seemed very real!
We are now open for applications from aspiring speakers. As the video below says, you don’t have to be an experienced speaker – you just need a big idea worth sharing. We will support you every step of the way from selection to stage with a series of workshops with professional speaking trainers. Please apply, and/or spread the word!
Angela Madsen: Following Angela’s tragic loss at sea, please remember about the fundraiser on GoFundMe to cover the cost of repatriating Angela’s body, and recovering her boat with the film footage on board. Please do what you can to support this cause, and check out Angela’s website for news updates.