Dr. Marilee Adams has spent her career working with individuals and leaders, as well as teams and organizations, teaching them how to ask more powerful and productive questions.
“People don’t realize the power of questions, and it’s not just the ones we ask out loud. Those are externally oriented. The questions that we ask ourselves are also incredibly impactful.” Adams emphasizes that most of us are generally unaware of these internal questions, how they affect the quality of our thinking and how profoundly they affect our results. “If I walk into a room and ask myself, ‘What’s going to be great about this meeting?’, I am more likely to be attuned to answer that question in a positive light and perhaps even contribute to making it a great meeting. However, if I ask myself, ‘How is this meeting going to be a waste of my time?’, this has the opposite effect in terms of my thinking and behaviour. Our internal questions are often self-fulfilling prophecies because we search for data to support them.”
Not asking questions can also be extraordinarily detrimental. “Every question missed is a potential crisis waiting to happen. If you go back to practically any crisis, you’ll find some missed opportunities for asking important questions. If you want to find out what went wrong, it’s essential to ask ‘What question(s) did we not ask, which led us to this undesirable outcome?’ That will also help people figure out what questions they should ask in the future.”
Adams believes there are several reasons we don’t develop our questioning muscles fully. We live in a world in which instantaneous answers are both sought and expected, an issue she believes will only escalate with the continued advancement of technology and social media. “It is a serious problem for businesses because we expect people to do what we want — yesterday — and yet we don’t give them time to think, reflect or learn.”
Another challenge corresponds to how we are socialized in learning. When we are young, we possess an innate curiosity. This is typically crushed, at home or at school, with the focus being on getting the right answers. “I don’t think it’s an accident that so many companies are unhappy with the quality of their new hires, because they’re getting people who have been trained to give answers, but not how to ask the right questions and be curious problem-solvers.”
In her book, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching, and Life, she explores different mindsets we adopt when we interact with people and/or situations, regardless of our age, gender or nationality. Both mindsets are completely normal. The first she calls Learner, which is open-minded, flexible and connected. The other she calls Judger; here we’re more closed-minded, critical and inflexible. “It’s important to note that Judger means judgmental, not judgment. We all need to make judgments. The dictionary tells us that judgmental can mean wearing blinders and not wanting to see what’s going on because it might contradict what we think we know.” These mindsets do not solely operate on an external plane. “If I ask ‘What’s wrong with me?’, that’s my internal Judger speaking.”
Judger is related to the amygdala (Adams uses the term “Judger hijack” rather than “amygdala hijack”), which is all about emotions, fear, survival and protection. “Although we need the Judger part of our brain, we don’t want to be ruled by it.” Unfortunately, most people do not realize how much of their thinking, feeling and acting come from a place of judgment.
Recognizing the benefits or perils of our mindsets, how can we manage our thinking more effectively? Adams shares several recommendations.
The first step is to become aware of whether we are operating from a Learner or Judger mindset. “If we can’t see what mindset we are in, we have no opportunity to do anything about it — and that affects the questions we ask ourselves and others. Asking questions is an essential skill for the success of an organization, in every role and at every level. That’s why I coined the terms Inquiring Leader and Inquiring Organizations, which are much like Learning Organizations.”
To maximize awareness, we need to build this capacity, which requires focus and practice, just as mindfulness does. “In our courses, we encourage participants to use the Choice Map as a mindset awareness tool that also helps them switch from Judger to Learner. We find that this has the added benefit of helping them build emotional intelligence and resilience. When people learn to recognize their Judger, they can ask themselves a ‘switching question’ such as, ‘How else could I think about this?’ or ‘Is what just happened personal?’ or ‘Do I like how I’m thinking or feeling about this and, if not, how can I reframe this?’ Gaining mastery in observing ourselves and identifying our mindsets empowers us to take the most productive action.”
No matter how skilled we become in self-observation and asking switching questions, Adams cautions that everyone must accept the fact that all of us will fall into Judger from time to time and that’s normal. “I’ve been doing this work for over 25 years,” she says, “and my Judger comes up frequently, though I’ve trained my Learner habit very well so I’ve developed a built-in rescue strategy. We emphasize making friends with Judger rather than trying to stamp it out because that’s not possible. In both academic and pop psychology, some people forward the notion that it’s beneficial to get rid of critical self-talk. I believe that this advice unwittingly makes things worse because people get mad at themselves for not doing the impossible. This in turn makes them even more critical of themselves, which is obviously not helpful.”
When I asked Adams, what makes her most proud of her work, she offered this: “Even though most of my work is consulting and coaching in organizations, it’s so rewarding when people share that their relationships with their children, their families or their spouses or partners have improved. Although Change Your Questions, Change Your Life is a business parable, the skills and concepts make a difference everywhere in our lives.”
• Join Craig Dowden and Dr. Marilee Adams for a free live webinar on Tues., March 6 at 1 p.m. EST, for a discussion on her book and the key strategies we can use to enhance success in our professional and personal lives. Register here.
• Craig Dowden (PhD) is president and founder of Craig Dowden & Associates, a firm focused on supporting clients in achieving leadership and organizational excellence by leveraging the science of peak performance. Dowden delivers evidence-based executive coaching and leadership development training to his clients. Connect with him by email or LinkedIn or Twitter @craigdowden.