by Andrea M. Darcy
Sometimes life can feel entirely stuck. And then someone – a friend, a colleague, or a therapist – asks us a certain question and just like that, a light turns on. Suddenly, everything seems possible again.
How can that be? What about the right questions at the right time can can suddenly cause such a breakthrough?
Questions come in different forms
While all questions have the power to make us think, and they all have their place in life? If we are desperate to move forward or reach a goal that is important to us, there are good questions to ask that can be more helpful than others.
Learning to ask yourself better questions can see you finding your untapped wisdom you didn’t even realise you had.
The ‘why’ spiral
‘Why’ questions can be useful if you are soul searching or trying to understand yourself and life.
But think about the last time someone asked you ‘why’. For example, a friend asking, “But why did you decide to take that career path?” Or someone asking you something like, “Why do you always talk so much?”
Did you have an instant answer? Or did you instead find yourself bluffing through a quick response then spending all night or several days going through many parts of your life, dissecting your personality, and perhaps feeling overwhelmed with all the thoughts and angles that come up?
Why questions can leave us spinning, which is not great if you are feeling stuck or trying to get closer to a goal that is important to you.
The other problem with ‘why’ questions is that if we are asking them of ourselves they tend to be the very questions that our inner critic has a field day with. Most questions that involve judgement start with Why. “Why did you go do that again”, “why did you not think of that”, “why did not you not call him sooner”, and on the list goes.
In summary, Why questions tend to be:
- feeling and perspective over factual
- backwards looking
- can be negative if you aren’t careful
- powerful for self exploration.
‘What’ and ‘How’ – The questions with kick
Some questions are faster acting. And they tend to begin with ‘What’ and ‘How’.
These questions have a kick because they require us to look at facts and ideas over feelings and judgements.
“What could you do to improve today?” “How could you get through this work faster?”. Can you see how different these questions are to, “Why are you having yet another awful day?”
Of course, any question can be used negatively and to criticise. For example, asking ‘what is wrong with me’ or ‘how can I be so stupid’ is rarely helpful. Work to keep your questions forward moving and future looking. Ask instead, ‘what can I do to feel better about myself’ and ‘how can I make better choices in life’.
In summary, What and How questions tend to be:
- forward moving
- factual over feeling
- future looking
- often optimistic
- powerful for finding solutions.
Turning whys into whats and hows
If you can’t stop asking yourself a ‘why’ question and it’s haunting your days, give yourself some relief by turning your question into ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ and perhaps finding a foot forward. For example:
“Why did I ruin that relationship?”
“Why did I mess up that presentation?”
- What went right in that presentation
- How can I take what I learned from my mistakes to make the next presentation better
“Why did I eat three pieces of cake?”
Good questions to ask if you feel stuck in life
If you are trying to reach a goal but feel it will never happen, or feel like life won’t kick into gear, try bigger What and How questions.
You can ask WHAT:
- is it that I really want in this part of my life that I am not admitting to?
- am I afraid of losing out on that is keeping me stuck?
- is the worst thing that could happen if I achieved this goal?
- is actually going right that I am not acknowledging?
- could I make what I am doing easier on myself?
And then ask HOW:
- could I find more support in reaching this goal?
- can I find other choices that I have missed?
- could I create more space in my life to commit to this goal?
How not to upset others with questions
Do you often find that when you are debating with others things end up in conflict? It might be that you are making others feel judged with too many ‘why’ questions.
As discussed above, why is an easy way to beat yourself up. Likewise, even if you don’t intend to imply anything negative, why questions are the ones that most often trigger the inner critic of others, leaving them defensive.
Questions like ‘why did you do that’, ‘and ‘why don’t you do this instead’ can also leave the other person feeling judged.
So next time you are curious about someone else’s actions, try some what or how questions instead. “What was it that inspired you to take that action”, or “How else might you want to do this?” might illicit better responses.
So all you need to know about good questions is…
‘How’ and ‘What’ questions are great questions to move forward and help us take action.
‘Why’ questions are very important when we need to understand ourselves and allow us to dive deeply into our thoughts and feelings.
And ‘Who’ questions can be some of the most powerful of all. No, we didn’t discuss ‘who’ above, but…
…There comes a time in everyone’s life when the bravest question you can ask that can truly help you move forward is, ‘who can I ask for help?”
Whether that is a friend, a mentor, a coach, or a therapist, if you are really stuck and need some fresh perspective, then embrace the power of ‘Who’.
Photos by Tsashi Levant-Levi, Ksayer1, Duncan Hull, Raymond Bryson, Beatnik Photos, garlandcannon
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and mentor, who has done some training in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD, and advises people on how to plan their therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy