I found myself at a ‘rock bottom’ recently. By that, I mean I felt very low. I got to a point where I lacked energy and ideas. I simply didn’t know what to do next. Does this ever happen for you? I know authors can find themselves in this place. It’s a dark place in which all options seem blocked off. In my case, it is often a matter of thinking myself into a corner. And once there, I become as terrified as any cornered wild animal.
Then my mind offered me a new thought. It came in the form of a question: what could I do right now to make myself feel better? Within seconds, I felt relief from that trapped feeling. And, at that moment, I knew that it was not finding the answer to the question that made me feel better; it was the attitude of asking that re-opened my world and made me believe in possibilities again.
When you are writing a book or blog, your mind will often lead you down a dead-end. Then it is time for you to apply the question cure.
As a journalist, I immersed myself in questions every day. Questions spark a story idea. How do start-up companies find money for growth? What led that company to go offshore? I’d ask everyone involved questions and their answers became the story. I spent 90% of my time asking questions and only 10% writing the answers. That might be an exaggeration.
Today, I sometimes feel in a question drought, starved of the juice that questions provide me. That is what I was suffering from recently: question starvation.
Imagine my horror, when I Google ‘questions’ and see them divided into two types: open and closed. How sad! I can think of dozens of types of questions. Not all of them help us. Here are some in my treasure trove for you to dip into whenever you need to apply the question cure.
You will recognise these ones; they ask us to go inside and find the answers within. It was a reflective question that got me out of the funk I described above. Reflective questions help us to digest information; they bring us into the story, and make us the central character. How do you use reflective questions to change your mood?
Our culture is not good at training us for questions that do not demand a solution: compassionate questions. For example, I might ask myself, how am I feeling right now? If the answer is miserable or frustrated, the compassionate response is to just acknowledge how I feel and accept it. We need compassion to ask ourselves some of the hard questions, and to ask hard questions of others, including our readers.
Leadership questions are designed to find answers, but not to serve them up on a platter. ‘Questions wake people up,’ writes author Michael Marquardt in his book, Leading with Questions. Leaders who ask the right questions avoid disasters, he argues and I agree. This is perhaps best illustrated by examples of leaders who failed to ask the right questions, such as the leaders of the collapsed companies: the bank, Lehman Brothers; energy trader, Enron; and accountants, Arthur Andersen.
My favourites, these are cheeky and light-hearted questions on serious topics. The questioner challenges, teases and dances with the questioned. One question leads to the next, generating energy, ideas and new questions. Spirited questions lead to a hilarious question conflagration.
If you want a single secret to deepen your relationship with friends, clients and lovers, ask them listening questions. These are questions that keep you in listening mode. You ask, they answer. You listen and ask if you understand them correctly. ‘Are you saying that you are not sure why you are writing this book?’ is a listening question. They are magic.
The guiding question
Are you sure that you want to marry a conservative politician (when you are a Greens voter)? That is a guiding question. I mean, it’s quite obvious that I don’t think you should marry them. There are more skilful versions of this question. Sometimes I ask my clients, ‘Who are you to think that your first book will be perfect?’ or ‘Who are you to withhold your wisdom from the world?’
You’d be surprised at the revealing answers a silly question often delivers. Bad things happen because we do not ask enough silly questions. During the Dotcom boom, no-one asked how come these new companies did not have any plans to make profits? And then came the Dotcom crash, in which everyone asked that question.
Reverse psychology questions
If you want a certain answer, and someone is just not giving it to you, there is nothing like asking if the opposite is true. ‘So you are saying that writing your book is easy as pie?’ I know, it is cheating. But sometimes we are desperate.
There is a question that increases, rather than decreases, our agony, and it almost always starts with the word why. Why am I writing this book, this blog, training to get fit, declining this piece of chocolate cake? Asking ourselves, or someone we know or love an angry question is not a good idea. We get defensive answers.
However, they are brilliant at a social or organisational level. Think about the South African activist, Nelson Mandela, questioning apartheid. Or the suffragettes, questioning women’s franchise. Angry questions can, and must, be asked of the world to challenge power and stimulate change.
In these times, angry questions can be the inspiration for a whole book. A fantastic example is the anti-diet book Fat is a Feminist Issue by Psychologist Susie Orbach.
The ol’ favourites
How, what, when and why not are marvellous questions for curing ourselves. For example: How could I help someone else right now? What could I do to make myself feel better? When could I find time to relax and meditate? Why not go for a walk right now?
When to ask why?
When we are in pain, why is not the right question. But why is the right question when we are feeling happy and purposeful and resolved. In that state, understand ourselves and our motivations and it is time to get clear about our why we do what we do.
Apply the question cure
Next time you feel stuck writing your book or blog, apply the question cure. There is no problem that a question cannot answer.