Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is (Three Rivers Press, 2003), understands the power of a good question better than most. The renowned personal-development facilitator is legendary for her ability to elicit life-changing insights with nothing more than a gentle form of inquiry.
Katie once met a man serving a life sentence for murdering his wife. She asked him, “What were you thinking at the moment you did the deed that put you here?” The man said he was thinking that his wife didn’t love him. That’s when Katie asked one of her trademark questions: “Is that true?”
Ten minutes of discussion revealed evidence that the man’s wife had loved him. It was really just his painful thoughts about his wife that had caused his rage. But by the time he realized that, it was too late.
For most of us, the consequences of our misguided thoughts are not so dramatic. But our unexamined ideas and beliefs can certainly work against us. So we’ve asked Katie and four other visionaries to share their best eye-opening, insight-provoking questions.
1. Is it true?
Not knowing what’s causing our suffering, says Byron Katie, is a lot like being a hamster on a wheel: We’re not sure why we’re running, but we can’t seem to stop. The solution is to identify and question the thought that has us running in the first place.
For instance, let’s say you had a bad day at work — and it all started when you noticed that your boss never acknowledged you for your hard work on a big project. The thought that keeps running through your head is “My boss doesn’t think I’m valuable.”
That’s when Katie would tell you to ask yourself: “Is it true? Can you absolutely know that that thought is true?” Is it really true that your boss doesn’t think you’re valuable? When you pause and reflect, you remember that she’s been extremely busy lately. She’s been managing several new initiatives at work. She’s remarked in the past that you do terrific work, and your last performance review was stellar. More likely, your boss does value your contribution — she has just been too swamped to remark on it.
We can almost always discover a grain of untruth behind a thought that is causing us suffering. And when you look directly at a thought that’s making you feel bad and examine it more closely, it loses a lot of its power.
It takes practice to identify and question these thoughts, says Katie. “No one has ever told us to question our own thinking. But when we do, we become responsible for our own lives, our own minds, our own health and our own choices.”
2. Is this thought empowering or disempowering me?
Many of us operate on autopilot, often relying on ingrained thinking patterns and self-talk to direct our day-to-day lives. The problem with that, of course, is that these patterns may not be serving us very well. The way we think about things might be sabotaging our happiness, effectiveness and sense of fulfillment, yet we persist in thinking the same thoughts because they are familiar and comfortable.
We can help snap ourselves out of ingrained thought patterns by first identifying them and then asking, “Is this thought empowering or disempowering me?” says Debbie Ford, author of The Right Questions: Ten Essential Questions to Guide You to an Extraordinary Life (HarperOne, 2004).
For example, say you regularly experience “blame thoughts” when your spouse leaves old coffee grounds in the coffeemaker. When you isolate your thought (“It’s all his fault!”) and ponder Ford’s question, you will find that what you initially take for empowerment (“I’m right and he’s wrong!”) is, in fact, a disempowering, self-victimizing thought. The thought only isolates you further (“Me vs. Spouse”), deepens your resentment (“He is thoughtless and doesn’t care about me!”) and leaves you mired in frustration because you’re no closer to finding a real, workable solution.
If you can shift your thinking away from blame and instead focus on solutions (“What’s the best solution to the coffee-ground conundrum?”), you will feel — and be — infinitely more empowered. “We are always moving toward something or staying stuck where we are,” Ford explains. When we can identify how our thinking is keeping us stuck, we can adjust those thoughts.
3. How can I leverage this experience to become even better?
When faced with difficult circumstances, leadership expert Robin Sharma, author of The Leader Who Had No Title (Simon & Schuster, 2010), suggests thinking strategically. Sure, a situation may be tough, but there’s almost always a way of reworking a negative scenario so it can catapult you forward.
Take the current economic crisis: While the recession has had countless negative effects, it continues to hold opportunities for those entrepreneurs who are willing to think beyond the rhetoric of “times are hard, money’s tight, and nobody’s hiring.”
“Every challenging experience carries an opportunity to leverage it into an even better situation than before it occurred,” Sharma says. Even personal loss, he notes, brings our attention to resources we didn’t know we had. The secret is to focus on the opportunity, not obsess about the problem.
4. What’s one thing I could stop doing today that would have the most positive impact in my life?
This is actually part one of a two-part question series favored by Brian Johnson, founder and chief philosopher at PhilosophersNotes, an online compendium of self-help knowledge. The second question is “What is one thing that you could start doing today that would have the most positive impact in your life?” But for most people, Johnson notes, creating space and energy for that thing requires us to stop doing something else first.
Does your daily commute leave you stressed? Investigate public transport and telecommuting. Does eating junk-food lunches leave you with low energy and miserable in the afternoons? Ditch burgers for bean soups. Absolutely dread cleaning the bathroom? The psychic freedom you would experience if you hired someone to do it for you might be worth the price.
Asking the question “What’s one thing I could stop doing?” gives you an opportunity to challenge ritualized routines and habits you may want to leave by the wayside on your path to a more fulfilling life, says Johnson. It helps you find the energy drains in your life and look for ways to eliminate them, leaving you feeling lighter, happier and more excited about the future. (For more wisdom from Brian Johnson, see “Heroic Effort.”)
5. What is it I’m not facing?
If You’re Feeling stuck, scared or resistant, it may be because you’re not facing some aspect of your life, says psychologist Gay Hendricks, PhD, author of many personal-development books, including The Big Leap (HarperOne, 2009).
He describes an example involving a client suffering from acute anxiety: “She wanted to find out how she could stop feeling scared,” he recalls. “So, I asked her, ‘What are you not facing? What is your body trying to get you to face?’ She worked with that for a minute, then she said, ‘I’m not facing that my husband might be having an affair.’”
The conversation inspired the woman to confront her husband directly. It turned out that he’d been faithful, but by talking about it, they were able to agree to spend more time on their relationship.
The things we ignore can come in any shape or size — from a partner’s possible infidelity to the piles of laundry in the closet to a close friendship that isn’t so close anymore. But all the things we ignore grow in intensity and dimension; even if they start out small, they don’t remain so for long.
“Being stuck in a pattern is kind of like being in a trance,” says Hendricks. “You need something to come wake you up from a trance — and there’s nothing better than a good, honest question to do that.”
Next: More tips for self-questioning
The Power of Inquiry
Here are more ways you can use self-questioning to break through limiting thoughts and behaviors:
1. See the patterns: Often the situations we find most emotionally charged and vexing are those rooted in the patterns of our past. In moments of discomfort, psychologist and author Gay Hendricks suggests paying attention to our bodies, and simply asking, “How is this feeling familiar?” “How is this like things that have happened before?” Recognizing that your current reaction has more to do with the past than the present can be liberating.
2. Ask early and often. Certain questions are more effective at certain times of day, says coach and author Debbie Ford. In the morning, Ford asks herself, “What am I going to do today to have an incredible day?” Then at each new fork in the road, she can ask, “Will this propel me into the future of having an incredible day or will it keep me stuck in a pattern of my past?”
3. Face the Facts. Hendricks has an acronym for good questions in tough situations. Just remember “FACT”: (F) What am I not facing? (A) What am I refusing to accept? (C) If I could choose any outcome, what would it be? and (T) What action do I need to take? Those four questions cover a wide range of “stuck” situations.
Andi McDaniel is a freelance writer in San Francisco.