One summer afternoon, shortly after the first edition of this book was published, I answered my office phone to hear a man’s booming voice announce, “You don’t know me, but I’m Ben.” He laughed, and I laughed along with him because I knew exactly what he was referring to. Ben, the main character in this book, is a composite I created, based on real life clients I have coached over the past thirty years. This caller had identified with Ben’s situation so thoroughly that he was convinced I could also help him and his organization get the results they needed.
Ben has become almost legendary for many of my readers. In the story—a business fable through which readers experience the practical power of Question Thinking (QT)—Ben is floundering in his new leadership position. He’s also having trouble at home. His relationship with Grace, his wife of less than a year, is growing increasingly tense. When we first meet him, Ben is one unhappy guy. With the help of his coach and mentor, Joseph S. Edwards, he not only advances in his professional life but also deepens his bond with his wife.
Since that first telephone call from a “Ben,” I’ve received many similar messages from both men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds. One reader, David, wrote that like Ben, he’d been in trouble at work, especially with keeping his team fully engaged. Reading the book not only changed the questions he asked himself, but his new leadership style encouraged greater collaboration and productivity. He was ultimately so successful that his results were included in an article in Inc. magazine.
The world has changed dramatically since the last edition of Change Your Questions, making Question Thinking skills more crucial than ever for dealing with the rising social, economic, health, and environmental challenges confronting us. Through the internet and other digital media, we are bombarded by wide-ranging opinions and widely varying sources of information. Without an ability to question and critically evaluate what we take in, the cumulative impact of these experiences fuels our anxiety, uncertainty, discord, and effectiveness as leaders and as human beings. QT skills support our ability to navigate these rough waters with resilience, adaptability, thoughtfulness, and hope.
Question Thinking, the heart of this book, provides easy-to-learn skills for observing and evaluating our present thinking— especially the questions we’re asking ourselves—and guides us in designing new questions for achieving more fulfilling experiences and results. QT is about thinking mindfully rather than reactively. It leads to more productive outcomes, even under pressure, while building reliable capacities for constructive thought, so vital for sustainable change in our professional as well as personal lives. Without these skills, even our greatest aspirations may remain only wishes and dreams.
Question Thinking began with an important moment of discovery in my own life. I was a determined young graduate student working away on my PhD dissertation. Not only did I endure a ruthless inner critic, but criticisms from others often left me in tears. One fateful day, expecting high praise from my advisor for some work I felt great about, I instead heard him say: “Marilee, this is just not acceptable.” At that moment something new happened. I started going to that old place of tearfully wondering what was wrong with me. But then, I began observing myself, and watching not only what I was thinking but how I was thinking. I observed that all the negativity that made me so unhappy was in the form of questions I was asking myself. They were questions like: “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I ever get anything right? What makes me think I have anything to offer? How come everybody else is so much smarter and more successful than me?”
Anyone who’s spent much time trying to answer questions like these will recognize how stuck and frustrating this can be. This time, instead of getting caught up in these questions, I paused and took a deep breath. Becoming calm and curious, I simply asked myself, “Okay, how do I fix it?” That simple switch in my thinking took me from feeling powerless to being confident enough to take constructive action. I was able to give my inner critic a rest and calmly consider my advisor’s suggestions. Soon I was rewriting the section he had found unacceptable, and to my surprise I came up with new possibilities that greatly improved my work.
Of course, I had to wonder, “What had happened?! What made such a difference this time?” I realized that my old familiar judgmental questions about what was wrong and not good enough about me seemed to have evaporated. Rather than getting stuck in that awful quagmire of self-criticism and self-doubt, I had instead focused on the future with the goal of having my questions work for me rather than against me.
Was that change of mine just a fluke? Was there a way to turn this seeming miracle into a reliable method for intentional change for myself and others? From such modest beginnings blossomed this body of work that today I call Question Thinking—which points to how we think with questions and how these questions affect our life experiences and outcomes.
In their book, Coaching with the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice, coauthors David Rock and Linda J. Page described one of the core benefits of my work: “People typically are not aware of their internal questions or of the profound power they exert in shaping and directing their experiences and lives. By changing those questions, one can set in motion a different process leading to a different result.”
If you are a coach or any kind of change agent—team leader, department head, or CEO—the QT methodology can become an integral part of each conversation, providing intuitive skills for self- coaching, greater self-awareness, and improved effectiveness in whatever you do.
It’s always deeply satisfying to have readers and clients share their success stories with me. One such story, involving a company called Flextronics, was reported in the Wharton@Work Newsletter, which I reference in the notes at the back of the book. Flextronics—renamed Flex—is a global leader in electronics manufacturing and distribution in about 30 countries. Using the principles of Question Thinking, Carmella, the Senior Director of Organizational Effectiveness, coached to success the leaders of what had been a poorly performing operations site. This was no mean feat since it involved about 700 people in a site that had had the lowest scores of the 15 in their division.
Carmella assigned the site leaders to read Change Your Questions and share the book with their teams. She then coached the leaders in the use of a tool I call Q-Storming—brain-storming on steroids—ultimately solving what had been daunting and costly problems. (I describe the use of this tool in Chapter 11.) Within three months, Carmella’s QT based coaching was credited with the site’s dramatic turnaround. They moved to the #1 spot in their division and maintained a position among the top sites year after year.
A different kind of story touched me in another way. Jason, a workshop participant, talked about coming home to find his wife Pam in a panic in his basement office. Water poured down from a flood in the kitchen above, threatening his computer and media equipment. Jason told us, “The old me would have snapped into blame mode.” Instead, his Question Thinking skills kicked in. He took a deep breath and told himself, “This is not about blame.” Instead, he asked himself, “What do I need to do right away? How do we stop the flood?” He quickly shut off the water and called the plumber. In his soggy downstairs office, Pam sobbed, “This was your whole world, Jason. And I nearly ruined it.” Jason said that thanks to learning Question Thinking, he had the presence of mind to reply, “No, Sweetheart, you’re my whole world.” He later told me, “At that moment I knew it was time to let go of what I’d collected and never let anything ruin what was really important in my life.”
These stories illustrate the universal applicability of Question Thinking. At work it’s useful regardless of your role or where you are in your career; that’s why it’s so widely used in businesses and organizations. As a benefit in our personal lives, readers gain new tools and skills to make their lives and relationships happier and more fulfilled.
When, with well over 400,000 copies sold, my publisher asked me to write a fourth edition of this book, I took the opportunity to expand on what I’d learned over the years from my clients, students, and workshop participants. Their contributions have been invaluable and have often helped me to see new applications of QT. Notably, for 10 years my wonderful students in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University taught me much that has expanded my thinking about Inquiring Leadership. I’ve woven what my clients and students taught me into the book in the form of stories and anecdotes, and used these insights to enhance the practical application of the QT tools you’ll find near the back of the book.
Because so many people and organizations requested it, I’ve added a book Discussion Guide, describing ways to have the most meaningful conversations about the concepts and tools in this book. You’ll also find a glossary for quickly clarifying the main terms in the book.
I’m especially excited about integrating some of the fascinating discoveries in the burgeoning world of neuroscience. There’s a whole new chapter in the story about what brain scientists have discovered about our responses to everyday challenges, fostering a new appreciation for the brain’s ability to constantly expand its abilities. These discoveries help us understand how Question Thinking can profoundly impact what we are able to achieve in personal progress as well as with team and leadership development. Gaining a sense of what the neurosciences can teach us about mindsets not only helps to demystify the process of change, but it can also provide us with confidence in the possibility and “how to” of change, building resilience and positive habits.
In The Art of the Question, my first book, I wrote that “with our questions we make the world.” 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, deeper connections, discovery, and innovation. I have a vision of workplaces and a society—of individuals, families, organizations, and communities— that are vibrant with this spirit of inquiry and possibility.
If the power of self-coaching appeals to you, check out the Change Your Questions, Change Your Life Workbook: Master Your Mindset Using Question Thinking.
Now it’s time to meet Ben—the fictional character I’ve created to represent my ideas in this book. You’re about to discover, in Ben’s own words, how changing your questions really can change your life.
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