boy in white and red crew neck t-shirt sitting on chair

Asking Empowering Questions – A Penny for Your Thoughts

boy in white and red crew neck t-shirt sitting on chairYou probably heard the expression, “A penny for your thoughts…” Isn’t that an offer that is far too little to hear the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of our friends? For if we were to listen carefully to what they have to say, I’m sure there is a great deal we can learn.

How about your thoughts? How much are they worth? Their value and importance are incalculable. Why? Because your success and happiness depend on them. Do you know that each day winners, champions, and achievers have half the thoughts of ordinary folk? That’s because they spend twice the time mulling over them.

A critical part of the mindset of champions is curiosity. Because they are curious, they ask questions. That’s why they spend twice as much time considering their thoughts, for they pose questions to themselves and then seek to answer them. No wonder they are successful. After all, questions are keys that unlock answers. They also help to focus the mind on one’s goals. Also, as Francis Bacon wrote, “Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.”

Questions are empowering as their answers help us to solve problems and to advance. Since questioners are on a quest, they find life exciting. And when they find the answers they are looking for, they find life all the more enjoyable. There are no foolish questions. But there are fools. They are the ones who never ask questions.

Well, then, what sort of questions should we be asking ourselves? For starters, here are three important questions: What do I want? What is preventing me from getting what I want? What will I do to remove or overcome the obstacle or obstacles blocking my way? The answers to these questions are no less than the keys to our success.

The renowned author of As a Man Thinketh, James Allen, adds “For true success ask yourself these four questions: Why? Why not? Why not me? Why not now?”

A Jewish sage poses three powerful questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

Scholar Joseph Campbell posed one question: “The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure (life).”

Now that you have the idea, here are some more helpful questions to ask: What do I know today, that I did not know yesterday? Will what I am doing now bring me closer to my dreams? What can I do now? What action will benefit me the most?

What can I dedicate my life to? How can I infuse my life with meaning? What cause can I live for? How do I spend my time? Am I contributing to life?

What am I doing wrong? What can I learn from my mistakes? What should I avoid doing? What do I need to do more often? Am I going to make the most of this opportunity (life)?

Now, the nature of our questions determine the nature of our answers. For example, trivial questions produce trivial answers while important questions generate momentous answers. For similar reasons, if you are interested in results, avoid theoretical questions and stick with practical questions.

There are also right and wrong questions. “Do I have what it takes to be successful?” is an example of the wrong question. It is wrong because everyone has what it takes to be successful. The correct question is “Am I willing to pay the price for success?” Everyone wants to be successful, but few are willing to pay the price. So, few succeed.

Also, avoid useless questions and adopt empowering ones. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to an important meeting, asking yourself why this is happening to you is useless. Instead, you should be asking yourself questions such as “How can I cope? What are my options? How will I handle the situation once I am finally out of the traffic jam? Is there anything useful I can do while I am stuck here? What can I do to lessen the likelihood of something similar occurring in the future?”

We can also have high or low standards for our questions, which determine whether we experience rewarding or disappointing lives. Perhaps you are familiar with some of these low standard questions: “How can I leave work early today? How can I use sick days to take time off? How can I avoid the company picnic? What is the least I can do and still get paid?”

Examples of high standard questions are: “How can I help my company to reach its goals? What can I do to fully cooperate with my teammates? Who can I encourage today? What is the most efficient use of my time? How can I increase my value to the company? What other responsibilities can I take on?”

Can you see how by asking different questions, we get different answers, which lead to different results? Yes, our successes and failures are the results of our questions! Of course, the purpose of asking questions is not merely to arrive at answers, but to act on them, for questions derive their power from the actions they inspire.

Science cannot answer all our questions. It can teach us our capabilities, but it cannot reveal whether we ought to do everything we can do. Some questions fall under the purview of philosophy or metaphysics. The answers to such questions often come from deep within. Hermann Hesse explains, “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me.”

Our questions also create our life view. A good example is given by Bobby Matherne: “The way the Buddhist asks the question creates a different view of nature than the way the physicist does. The Buddhist asks wave questions and the physicist asks particle questions. One sees an unbroken whole and the other sees scattered parts.”

As we grow in consciousness, we come to realize there are times to refrain from asking questions. Such a time is described by South African author Sir Laurens Jan van der Post, “I think the most wonderful things in life are beyond reason, that is why I think ‘why’ is often such an irrelevant question; it is very limited. The real things in life have nothing to do with ‘why.’ They are just ‘so;’ they are just ‘thus.’ Life is a ‘thus,’ and until you realize this ‘thusness’ of life, you are stuck.”

Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz wrote “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” What are YOUR questions?

Are there stupid questions?

Reason implies intelligence, so if you ask a question for a reason, it cannot be a stupid question. And since all questions are asked for a reason, there are no stupid questions. Well, if there are no stupid questions, what kind of questions do stupid people ask? Guess what? There are no stupid people, only people. “Stupidity” is not a reality; it’s merely a label. We stick it on people to compensate for our own insecurity.

If there were such a thing as a “stupid” person, I guess it would be someone who didn’t ask questions. How can we learn, if we don’t ask? When we stop asking questions, we stop learning. When we stop learning, we turn off the music of life; we stop existing. An infant crawls along the floor not with its arms and legs, but with its curiosity, its relentless desire to discover. We need to protect and nurture that insatiable curiosity so that all through life we will give birth to an endless stream of discoveries. Questions, then, are tools that unlock answers and generate power.

Questions give us significance and a reason for being, for as Carl Sagan wrote, “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.”

Use the power of questions to strengthen your relationships. When you make a new acquaintance, ask many questions. How else can you develop an understanding and appreciation of your new friend? Your questions not only feed you with information, but also communicate your interest in the other person.

How do we stoke the fire of love in our family life? Not with hollow phases, such as, “I love you.” But with penetrating questions, such as, “How did I hurt you? What can I do to make up for it? What can I do to become a better friend? What would you like me to stop doing? What would you like me to do more of? What would you like me to understand about you?”

If you’re not asking your spouse and children questions, you’re doing all the talking, which means you’re not displaying any interest in them. Or, it can mean that you’re just pretending to listen to what they say. True listening is a dialogue, for it needs verification, clarification, and amplification.

We often start conversations with a question. For example, we may ask, “What do you think about the woman who drowned her five children?” But how do you respond to an answer you disagree with? If the conversation deteriorates into a squabble about capital punishment, for example, your question did not release power, but weakness. Your friendship has not grown stronger, but cooler.

What did you do wrong? You failed to seize an opportunity. You failed to ask yourself the right questions. When you strongly disagree, you should be asking yourself, “How can I become more tolerant? How can I expand my own understanding of the subject by considering my friend’s arguments? How can I use this as an opportunity to understand how the other side feels.”

Disagreements, then, are opportunities to express unconditional love. We may not agree with our friend’s opinion, but we agree with their right to share a different view, and we value their uniqueness.

Sometimes a friend will ramble on incoherently. Instead of asking yourself what’s the point they’re trying to make, and growing frustrated, ask yourself what is the real message they are communicating. Perhaps they’re just seeking validation. They’re just saying, “Look! I’m here. What do you think of me? Do I have any value?” In other words, you may be lucky enough to be faced with an opportunity to be compassionate. You can pat your friend on their back, laugh at their jokes, and let them know you are happy to be with them whether or not they have anything significant to say at this time.

A good number of years ago, I visited my 92-year-old step-mother in a nursing home. During the forty years that I knew her, she had always been negative. For example, when I would write to her in my twenties, instead of answering my letters, she would return them with spelling, grammatical, and stylistic corrections! Always complaining, it seemed she never had a kind word to say about anyone. This time it was no different. “Chuck,” she said, “why does your wife speak such poor English?” (Since my wife was born and raised in Japan, she speaks with an accent.) Although I have always tried to accept my step-mom unconditionally, I thought it may be time for a change. After all, the other residents of the retirement community complained about her negativity.

So, this time, after she criticized my wife’s apparent failure to master English, I decided to ask a question. Looking her straight in the eye, and without any animosity, I said, “Why would you say such a mean thing?” The power of questions is that they provoke thought. For as Francis Bacon wrote, “A sudden bold and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man and lay him open.” I am happy to announce that old dogs can learn new tricks. For that simple question forced my relative to think about her actions. And in the next few days, I was amazed at how she opened up.

Before leaving, I told her I was working on a book. “I suppose,” she said, “when your name appears on the cover, it will be followed by M.A.” “No,” I said. “Degrees are not important. The President of one of the largest advertising companies in the world, Saatchi & Saatchi, has only a ninth grade education. Just because he quit school doesn’t mean he quit learning. On the contrary, he’s one of the brightest men in business.”

After the above explanation, my relative asked a question that I found astonishing. “You mean, I don’t have to be ashamed that I only have a high school diploma?” You see, my father had a Master’s Degree and everyone in her field had a B.A. or M.A. She started out at the bottom of the ladder in her profession, but because of her great talent became the manager of a department, overseeing college graduates. I never knew she didn’t have a degree. Suddenly, all the pieces came together! No wonder she was correcting my letters 40 years ago. It was her way of saying, “I may not have a degree, but I’m not stupid. I’m smart enough to correct your letters.” She let her “lack of education” bother her all these years!

During the next few days, I believe she came to realize that she had nothing to be ashamed about. Just the opposite, her many accomplishments more than justify a great deal of pride. I think both of our lives were changed the day I asked that simple question.

We Get the Right Answers only when We Ask the Right Questions

A middle-aged reader has occasional bouts of depression. The good news is she is still functional, able to work and live independently. The bad news is her depression casts a dark shadow over her life, preventing her from seeing how beautiful life is. The negativity caused by depression is worse than physical blindness because the physically blind know they are blind and learn to cope. But sufferers of depression don’t know they are blind. They think the world really is a horrible place.

They don’t understand that the misery they are going through is not reality, but their own distorted thoughts and beliefs. How do you explain to a blind man that grapes and bananas are different colors? How do you explain to a depressed person that life is exciting, wondrous, and joyful? If there were no solution to this problem, we all would have cause to be depressed. Thankfully, however, depressed patients are being helped every day by being trained how to change their thoughts. So, there is hope for our reader who finds herself stuck in a swamp of negativity. Since none of us are 100% positive all the time, the material I will cover should help everyone.

We approach our problems differently. Some who are in the same position as our reader have a simple plea, “Help! I’m stuck. What do I do?” However our reader, who I will call Monica, asks not one but many questions. Because of this, I will focus on the art of asking questions, for we can only get the right answers when we ask the right questions. Before I start let’s look at the questions Monica asks:

“Why don’t our lives make a difference or really matter? Why is it that what self-help authors and philosophers say and what we do are two separate things? Why do we allow the homeless to live and die on the streets? Why do most people support capital punishment? A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine died from a heart attack; why is it that I didn’t hear about until three years later?

“How do you develop a positive outlook when you are drowning in defeatism? No amount of positive thinking will change that. If such thinking could erase every negative emotion when called upon, we could cure every addiction, fix homelessness, and cure every mental illness.

“To succeed in life we need the help of others. What if the help just isn’t there? We, as a people, are not accountable to each others’ welfare. The values of the Golden Rule seem to be dying out.

“There are many factors determining success – many beyond the individual’s control. Call it free will… Call it luck. Many people simply can not find their calling, their mission, or their life purpose.

“How can we succeed when all we experience are endless setbacks and failures? Are there some laws of nature, physics, whatever, hidden away at work?”

As you can see, Monica’s questions come from a very dark place. Although I will answer them, it is far more important for her to learn how to ask the correct questions. And I am warning Monica upfront that she will disagree with my answers because of her temporary blindness. So, to try and open her eyes a little, I have this question for her:

Do you believe everything I write or everything your, boss, friend, neighbor, or teacher says? Of course not. That’s the way it should be. You need to question what you read and hear. But, tell me, Monica, why do you believe everything you think? You question everyone else, but why don’t you question your own thoughts and conclusions? Until you start questioning and challenging them, you will remain stuck.

What got you here won’t get you where you want to go. You have to do something different. And you need to understand that change always starts with a change in thinking. Think about your own thinking. Also think about these wise words of Leo Stein, “The wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own, the foolish man, because it is different from his own.”

Now I will quickly answer Monica’s questions, but the real solutions to her problem will follow the answers.

Q: Why don’t our lives make a difference or really matter?

A: A good question is empowering. It leads us toward a solution. A poor question leads to a dead-end. Monica’s question is a poor one. The implication is that our lives don’t matter. Her question is also a false one. That is, it is based on a false premise. Merely saying something is so, doesn’t make it so. Her question is not based on reality but on her depression.

If her question is a poor one, what is the right question to ask? It is, “How can I make a difference in the world?” The world put us here because we can make a difference, but whether we do is up to us. Knowingly or not, we make a difference to others, at times a positive difference, at other times a negative difference.

Q: Why is it that what self help authors and philosophers say and what we do are two separate things?

A: Another false question. It is not about what we do but about what Monica does.

Q: Why do we allow the homeless to live and die on the streets?

A: Such a question does a disservice to all those hardworking volunteers that sacrifice their own time and effort to help street people.

Q: Why do most people support capital punishment?

A: A strange question coming from someone who lives in a country that doesn’t have capital punishment!

Q: A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine died from a heart attack; why is it that I didn’t hear about it until three years later?

A: Why is the world responsible when it is you (Monica) that failed to keep in contact?

Q: How do you develop a positive outlook when you are drowning in defeatism? No amount of positive thinking will change that. If such thinking could erase every negative emotion when called upon, we could cure every addiction, fix homelessness, and cure every mental illness.

A: More false premises and non-recognition of all the hard working men and women helping others.

Q: To succeed in life we need the help of others. What if the help just isn’t there? We, as a people, are not accountable to each others’ welfare. The value of the Golden Rule seems to be dying out.

A: In his latest book, Excuses Begone! How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer discusses the 18 major excuses people use to explain their failures. Number eight on the list, and very common, is “No one will help me.” This is also one of Monica’s favorites. Such a belief is hardly helpful. An empowering belief is “God helps those who help themselves.”

Q: There are many factors determining success − many beyond the individual’s control. Call it free will… Call it luck.

A: Successful people have found that the harder they work, the luckier they become. That’s because it’s not ‘luck’ but hard work that makes them successful.

Q: Many people simply can not find their calling, their mission, or their life purpose.

A: We don’t ‘find’ our life purpose, we create it. It may be as simple as “I will do my best in everything I do” or “I will try to leave the world a better place.” Such simple statements can fill one’s life with meaning.

Q: How can we succeed when all we experience are endless setbacks and failures?

A: The wrong question. The right question is “How can we fail if we refuse to give up?” ‘Failure’ is a myth. It doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s only a word used to describe the moment someone decides to give up or try something different.

Q: Are there some laws of nature, physics, whatever, hidden away at work?

A: Yes, there are laws of life, but I wouldn’t call them hidden. The curious mind will quickly find them with a little bit of study. One law is “We find what we look for.” Look for something to complain about and you will surely find it. Enlightened people look for the good, look for something to be thankful for, look for something to be enthusiastic about. And as a result, they lead fulfilling lives.

Another law is “We reap what we sow.” A third example is “The law of Compensation.”

Now we are ready to reveal the steps Monica has to take to free her from the negativity that is holding her back.

1. The key to it all is to take responsibility. Monica needs to realize that she is responsible for her own happiness, not God, not the state, not her neighbor, therapist, society, or self-help guru. Until she can say, “I am responsible for my own failures” she will be unable to ask the right questions. Accepting responsibility isn’t about accepting blame. Rather, it is simply an acknowledgement that I am the only one who can help me. Monica needs to rely on her own inner power. Since she hasn’t used it for a long time, it has grown weak, and she has forgotten about it. But with practice, she can take charge of her life again.

2. Monica needs to shift her thinking from “I want to be changed” to “I want to change.” At the moment, she wants to be changed. She is hoping some wonder worker will wave a wand and transform her into a happy princess. In other words, she wants the benefits of change without doing the work. This is not because she is lazy, but because a common result of depression is a feeling of helplessness. She has the false belief that she cannot do it alone.

Monica needs to learn more about helplessness and what to do about it. She can begin her studies by visiting Overcoming Helplessness.

3. Monica has a natural gift of asking questions. But this gift works against her because she’s asking the wrong questions. Once she learns how to do it properly, she will excel in life. How can she learn the art of questioning? She needs to study this book, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching, and Life (see Reference section at the end of this article).

The book is written in a clear easy-to-follow manner and is pragmatic. It is not useless theory, but workable steps to take. Just in case Monica is tempted to say, “Self-help books don’t work”, I need to say that it is true self-help books don’t work, people do! Books can’t work; they can only point the way. But if Monica chooses to work (apply what she learns), the sky is the limit.

4. Monica also needs to get a clearer understanding of the power of the words we use. I suggest she read this article:

5. Every now and then, despite having lots to do, we just don’t feel like working on what we should. To break out of the cycle of inertia, I developed the following technique, which uses the power of questions.

a) Start by asking “What SHOULD I be doing now?”

Example answers are: I should be calling clients, answering Aunt Betty’s letter, studying, or exercising.

b) If you don’t feel like doing what needs to be done, ask “What else CAN I do now?”

Then make a list of other helpful things you can do. Example answers are: practice typing, practice tai chi, work on my schedule for the week.

c) Next ask, “What do I WANT to do now?”

Example answers are: play computer games, watch TV, go to sleep.

d) Next ask, “What WILL I do next?”

Now choose one of the helpful things you could be doing. It may not be the best thing to do (what you should be doing), but at least it will be better than wasting time. Also, this small success will help generate the energy to get started on what you should be doing.

Monica now has enough tools at her disposal to break from the past and launch a new, exciting life. No one can do it for her. The choice is hers: to become a victor or continue acting as a victim. Admittedly, the road to victory is paved with hard work, but the needed effort pales into insignificance when compared to the rewards.

Judging from our communication, I can tell Monica is a strong woman. I’m sure she can regain control and lead a fulfilling life. I’m also sure all our readers are rooting for her. Good luck Monica!



A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger

Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others By Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas

Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills by Tony Stoltzfus

The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead by Warren Berger

Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching, and Life By Marilee Adams Ph.D.

Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations That Matter by Will Wise


Say Less, Ask More: 7 Powerful Coaching Questions

Dan Moulthrop: The Art Of Asking Questions

The Power Of Effective Questioning