Facing a barrage of global and local crises of all kinds over the last several months, media pundits large and small (not to mention your crazy uncle Ralph) are offering up a bewildering and contradictory variety of opinions, each of them sure that they’re right, and each backed up by their own set of “facts.” It’s enough to drive even the most level-headed and rational person bonkers.

As an antidote, I’d like to make a modest suggestion that we focus more on asking the right questions rather than trying to find the “right” answers to questions that may be misleading, misinformed, or just plain wrong. When faced with the whirlwind of chaotic current events and conflicting recommendations on what we should or should not do, it is sometimes best just to stop, take a deep breath, and re-think things by asking different questions. A good question has the power to make us stop and think about things from different perspectives, to spur the imagination, and to inspire us to greater creativity.

Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself over the last few weeks; you can take this list as a starting point and add questions of your own. What’s important is not this particular list of questions, but that you keep asking different questions rather than getting hung up on finding the “correct” answer to questions that everyone seems to take for granted; much like a Zen Koan, the goal of asking these kinds of questions is to break yourself out of old patterns of thinking and to create new insights into problems which before might have seemed insoluble.

  • What does the person asking the question stand to gain (or lose) by asking it? Do they really want the question answered honestly, or do they want an answer that reinforces their existing beliefs? What are they really looking for in asking that question?
  • Why is someone trying to get me to agree to something? What’s in it for them if I agree? What if I don’t agree? Am I just afraid of disappointing someone else, of being perceived as wrong/ignorant/stupid/misinformed?
  • Is what I’m hearing/seeing/reading really true? How do I know? How can I confirm/deny it? What other questions can I ask? Who can I ask? Does it really matter if it’s true or not? If not, why not?
  • Is what I’m doing right this minute the highest and best use of my time? If not, what’s preventing me from doing something that is?
  • If I had a year to live, would I be doing what I’m doing now? If not, what would I rather be doing? What about six months? Three months? One month? One week? One day?
  • Would I be thinking about this particular piece of news differently if I were a woman? A man? A person of color? An immigrant? A disabled person?  A rich person? A poor person? If so, how?
  • If I were to lose half of everything I owned, would that change how I felt about myself? About others? About the world?
  • If I were stranded on a desert island and could have only one book with me, what would it be? Substitute person, recording, podcast, etc. for book and try again.
  • What is motivating me right now to behave the way I am? What about the person I’m interacting with? Are there other missing stakeholders not at the table who are influencing our interaction?
  • Could I do one thing today to make one other person’s life a little better? What would that be? Why am I not doing it right now?
  • Could I be a little kinder today? A little more honest? Gentler? Open? Forgiving?
  • What’s my most prized possession? Why? What if tomorrow it were taken from me? Could I live without it?
  • Have you followed the “rule of 3” in asking questions? That is, have you asked the same question 3 times, to get deeper and deeper answers? People often answer at first with what they think you want to hear, then with what they think is a safe but more revealing answer, and finally with something that’s more honest and truthful – so don’t be afraid to ask the same question multiple times to dig deeper.

Asking better, deeper, more probing questions helps us reframe problems, see things differently, and widen the solution set. We can’t rely on anyone else to do this for us: governments, businesses, the media, organized religion, and other established, organized power structures have their own agendas and ultimately seek to manipulate us to ensure their own continued existence and power – so it is critical that we learn to think for ourselves, to ask different questions, and to seek better answers.